Jan 152014

Disclaimer: I am certain by making my opinion known on this I’m cursed with future grandchildren who will act like howler monkeys in public spaces.

After a hectic week, Saturday is date night. The kids  bunked with  grandparents, the Blackberry  off, and  time for an elegant, sit-down dinner with your significant other —  the first meal in a week where you actually sit down.

The ambiance of the café shatters with a familiar sound from a table across the room.

Two-year-old Zoey feels confined in her high chair and shrieks in a high-pitched whine only a toddler can produce, one that sounds like the flying dinosaurs from the Johnny Quest theme.

Should Zoey be there on a Saturday night? Should her parents leave? Should the also-stressed-out parents who want an elegant night out — away from the kids — complain or even leave?

In Houston, Texas, last summer La Fisheria  banned children under age nine after 7 p.m. after complaints from couples such as the one described above caused the owner to rethink children dining at his place in the evenings. Just this week, a Chicago chef tweeted his unhappiness about an 8-month-old baby whose crying upset neighboring diners.

Do you take your children out to dinner?

As an empty nester without grandchildren, I appreciate a child-free meal out.  I am certainly not thrilled when we plan an evening out only to have ear-piercing screams and prolonged whining from a nearby table. (To be fair to children, that could be anybody, young or old.)

However, and here’s the big question,  how will children   learn appropriate public behavior if cloistered at home until they are school age?.

I don’t support bans. Kids are just that, kids.  Sometimes stuff happens. Any parent knows that sometimes a tired child will act out in unprovoked ways for no reason. How does the parent respond? Maybe by not taking a tired child to the restaurant in the first place. There are no absolutes here.

While I prefer my meals quiet and without chaos, I’m willing to put up with some noise  in public places just as people put up with my child in public places.

There is a huge caveat in my thinking, however.

Parents need to take responsibility for their children. If a child is screaming her head off,  isn’t there a reason?  Maybe not, but don’t parents have a responsibility to take the child to a quieter place?

I was thinking about this exact issue — children behaving badly  in public — when I noticed a waitress approach a table with a mom, dad and four children.

The waitress was ready to take the order.

The children behaved perfectly, while their father stood talking on his cell phone, making the waitress and his family wait on him.  I sought an example of bad behavior from a child;  the dad was being  rude to the waitress.

Anecdotal, but it goes right back to my point. Children are children, and parents can use public space as  a teachable moment. A pancake restaurant is a great place to start; I’m not so sure Morton’s Steakhouse or Chicago’s Alinea is such a great place for a four-year-old.

If parents make the choice to take Junior to a place with white linen tablecloths and a pricey menu, I  hope they have the discretion and maturity to remove the child if he is causing a huge distraction for other diners.

I also hope they tip well.

Of course, for a screaming two-year-old, there isn’t such a thing as a teachable moment, and the child may need to be taken out.

For a child in elementary school, going to a formal restaurant presents a great teaching tool for parents. He can learn which fork to use, how to read a menu and appropriately order different courses, how to interact with wait staff, appropriate table talk, and the right way to approach and leave a table.

We used to call these “manners.”

These experiences with dining will serve him well his entire life, no matter the situations he encounters.

There are so many other public spaces that are wonderful training grounds for children, such as the public library, church or synagogue, athletic fields, theaters, and yes, even the grocery store.  Who hasn’t been in the produce section when a child has gone ballistic?

Given a reasonable approach by a parent, most children can be taught to behave appropriately in public.

Originally published August 2013 at The Broad Side. Re-written and re-published January 15, 2014 at BlogHer.

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