Nine times out of ten when my family and I go out to breakfast or dinner, we get complimented on the good behaviour of our children. Although we have three of our own littles, I also care for another little one throughout the week which puts us at four (4!), 5 years old and under, sitting at our table. Most of the time we hear these comments as we leave:
I didn’t even know there were kids back there, let alone FOUR!
They’re so well behaved; you must have so much patience.
Wow, I wish I could take my kids out like that…
This last remark always catches me off guard because, well, why can’t you? Except for special circumstances, anyone can be taught how to behave respectfully at a restaurant, or anywhere for that matter.
It’s not always easy.
My eldest is very spirited and we have had, and continue to have, many struggles with reinforcing the standards that we expect in different social spheres. She is getting there and learning how to be a leader in choosing what is right as she is beginning to see how her behaviours, both good and bad, are being reflected in the behaviours of her little siblings. She is only five and still has heaps of growing to do - physically, mentally, and emotionally - so we are taking baby steps and always trying to be patient and lead by example.
Sometimes I wonder if I make it sound too simple, or if I'm being too rigid in my expectations, and innumerable other typical parent concerns and self-doubts. When I sit and put pen to paper on how we manage to go out with littles (restaurants, family gatherings, and many other social events, big and small), it really just comes down to three main steps - and, yes, a heap of patience.
I am so proud of how my kids behave while we are out in public restaurants and big events but they were not always so courteous and they're still not always respectful, either at home or out and about. Like I said before, 90% of the time - today, after a LOT of practice - they know what is okay and not okay while we are enjoying some time in the public eye. It just takes a stern look from one of their caregivers to know where the expectation lies. Even my 1.5 years old knows when Momma means business, although he usually just responds with a funny look of his own and an adamant “nuh-uh!”
What I’m saying here is that it didn't start this cohesively but we knew that these outings were something we planned to continue so we needed to develop a game plan and work at it!
My family and I go out to breakfast weekly with my grandmother and have done so for years. Despite the difficulties that the stubbornness of my firstborn brought, we persisted and maintained a steady expectation of respect, armed with adequate distractors and immediate consequences for when things got tough.
Kids are kids; they’re not made to sit still and be quiet while patiently waiting for food and listen to their elders talk about local news. Children are made for exploration, learning, and come with the latest technology for energy storage and output that rivals earlier models, tenfold! Still, there is a reasonable expectation that, during certain circumstances, these amazing abilities need to be fostered in a more controlled fashion.
Bringing books, toys, and other quiet activities will keep them distracted during the inevitable waiting period after they’ve been seated but before the food comes to the table. I would even extend that time to include after the kids have been fed by the parents who are now eager to eat their own food without any more distractions. This may sometimes include pulling out the dreaded phone *gasp* for some quiet screen time *double gasp* so that Momma and daddy can finish their - now lukewarm, at best - tea and coffee before heading out.
I have found, with four littles in tow, that I need 4 of each item I intend to bring for distraction. This number may vary for you depending on how many children you have or how old your kids are. There’s also the distinct possibility that your child may be acting out because they’re already really hungry and/or thirsty so having some small snacks and drinks at the ready is an asset with little at any time or event. I have created a Distractor Checklist that may help with your next public outing with littles.
If the kids start to act up and our prepared strategies aren't working within five minutes then we put the no-nonsense rule into effect whereby they get three strikes before one adult picks up the acting out child and takes them to the van/car to calm down while the other adult stays and enjoys the meal with the other well-behaved children. Usually, the most difficult part of implementing this rule is choosing who, of the adults, stays and leaves. If this takes the entire duration of the meal, so be it. It usually only takes one of these trips for the threat of missing out on the treat of participating to make them reset their choices and become more respectful at the table/event.
In the end, my kids are no different from John/Jane Doe’s kids down the way. We have just made certain activities a regular part of how we live our lives so we have been able to establish expectations and practice them on a regular basis.
If eating out or attending big events isn’t your thing then that's okay. If you want to train your children in the art of restaurant/event going etiquette, then practice at home and/or make a point of going out for a monthly trial. Whether you’re at home or out and about, keeping consistent expectations is the master key to having well-behaved children that impress, especially when at a restaurant or other social event.
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