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My wife and I have tried taking our kids out to eat (even at a young age) in hopes that more experiences will help them understand what is appropriate behavior and what is not. My oldest son (4) has a favorite restaurant that helps to keep him grounded while we are there. My youngest (2) likes the restaurant as well.

They usually do alright, but tend to stand up and try to watch people, talk to people, make numerous stops to the restrooms, etc. And sometimes the more you discipline, the worse they get.

So that being said, what is the best way to get kids to behave decently at a restaurant? I know the obvious answer is to simply not go. But there has to be a better way than that!

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Learning to eat in a restaurant is an important social skill and definitely worth the effort! –  MJ6 Oct 12 '13 at 20:26
    
Just don't be a walmart-like parent and beat your kid while you're on line at the buffet because they wouldn't stand in line. –  monsto Oct 16 '13 at 10:12

5 Answers 5

up vote 18 down vote accepted

Many good tips in other answers, to which I would add:

  • bring entertainment (a restaurant meal is longer to sit through than one at home)
  • treat it as a discovery experience (count the tables, find the bathroom, see how many times the word "cheese" is in the menu, try to guess people's names or how you think they might be related)
  • teach and compliment their restaurant etiquette (as early as they can speak, let them order for themselves, addressing the waitstaff directly; teach that when they leave a mess, that girl over there is the one who has to clean it up, so we should try to be tidy; teach that we use quiet voices so we don't bother all the other people...)
  • take breaks! After ordering, take a short discovery walk, maybe find a spot to come back to later: "When you finish up, we can go back and look at the fish in the aquarium by the front door."
  • choose well - pick child-friendly restaurants that have features the kids enjoy going to see
  • only take well-rested kids to a restaurant. If they're tired and you have to eat out, go somewhere with an outdoor playground.
  • be prepared to leave - if your child is having a meltdown, just pay your tab and go home.
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+1 for these awesome suggestions! I'm going to try some of these next time we take our kids out! –  Meg Coates Oct 14 '13 at 2:50
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+1 for teaching restaurant etiquette. Also, I think having our kids order politely from the waitstaff (strange adults!) is one of the reasons that they are not shy about talking to their teachers, lunchroom monitors, librarians and others at school. –  KitFox Oct 14 '13 at 13:27
    
"When you finish up, we can go back and look at the fish in the aquarium by the front door", only to discover like my brother recently did in Vietnam, that the fish on your plate looks just like the one over th... oh. –  SQB Feb 22 at 19:02

Valkyrie starts by raising the most important point: That what qualifies as decent behavior is very subjective.

We have always eaten out with our kids (6, 3, 6mos.), since they were very little.

If you want them to simply NOT bother other people then the thing that works for certain is to:

  • focus on them

I see so many parents at restaurants who are either playing on their mobile devices while their children go nuts OR parents who ardently believe that the outing is about the adults and the children are supposed to tag along. No, having children means you are there for them, which means when you are out you need to interact with them. Talk to them, ask them questions, play games, make every experience a learning experience. "I Spy" is a fabulous game.

  • Give them something to focus on.

Whether this is you and the interaction or a toy, coloring book, reading book or whatever you need to give them something to focus on. If you don't they will create their own fun, which sometimes crosses boundaries.

I also think that introverts find going out with children more challenging. Not only is the situation of being surrounded by people draining, but having to supply input for their children is draining. I make no judgment here, but point out this dynamic to raise awareness. If you're an introvert then you may need to make a very conscious effort to be effusive and outgoing and to create a stimulating family dynamic for your children.

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+1 for focusing on your children. It's so tempting as a parent to sometimes kick back in the booth and put parenting on hold, but the more we interact with our kids at the restaurant the better behaved they are. And it's a much more positive experience than constantly hissing at your child to "Sit down" or "Leave those people alone". –  Meg Coates Oct 14 '13 at 2:48
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Wow, as an introvert I can tell you that going out with our 3 year old can be a real struggle for me. I am very distracted by everything else going on in the restaurant that keeping focused on him is hard. I am very quick to leave a restaurant or to give him a time-out when he misbehaves and I had never thought about my introversion, how distracted I am, having an affect on my behavior in that situation. When it is just the 2 of us in a quiet restaurant we do ok, but in a crowded restaurant I have a harder time giving him the attention he needs and there is more going on that gets him excited. –  Dave Nelson Oct 14 '13 at 14:07

First question: HOW do you discipline? We have one that listens and one that is the incarnation of stubborn, and we find that One-Two-Three magic works for both, so long as we're consistent.

We also go over our restaurant rules on the way there, or while waiting, or when we get seated (or sometimes all three), and remind them of consequences ("if we get to three, we will leave and won't come back," for example). Once a consequence has been breached, we follow through, and recidivism is pretty much at 0% for the same offense. :)

If they LIKE going to restaurants, having to leave due to bad behaviour makes a much larger impression than just plain ol' getting in trouble and a later consequence.

And for the sake of the non-small-human set out there, we try to go to places where our kids are welcome, and we go fairly early (before the sets of people without small humans in tow show up). And because our younger child is still very messy, we leave a clean-up tip as well. Good behaviour on the part of the kids + consistent discipline on the part of the parents + a good tip = a restaurant that's always welcoming to our family.

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I know the obvious answer is to simply not go.

That may be "obvious", but I think a better way is to go fairly regularly! The more commonplace it seems to your children, the less likely you'll see unusual behavior. We started taking our son to restaurants at a very early age (about 3 months old), and continue to do so 3 years later. He generally does very well, and he's made several friends among the staff at the restaurants we frequent most often.

However, going often isn't really enough. There are other considerations to keep in mind.

One of the biggest ones, mentioned in several of the answers already posted, is picking a "good" restaurant. By "good", I mean one that is at least somewhat accommodating to children (children's menu, crayons available, high chairs/booster seats/baby-seat slings are available, etc.), and also one where some degree of noise is unlikely to draw any notice.

I wouldn't take my son to an intimate setting, where everyone is talking quietly and soft incidental music is being played. Instead, we go to restaurants where loud conversations are common, and the general ambient noise level is loud enough that a child joking about bodily functions is likely to go unnoticed.

Another important factor is the food they offer. If there's nothing there your kids will enjoy eating, its going to be a struggle no matter how well behaved they are. If a place doesn't offer a children's menu, or doesn't offer any of my son's favorites, we don't go (alas... this means I only rarely get to enjoy Chinese food!).

I also suggest bringing entertainment.

I've seen people bring portable DVD players to restaurants, set them up on the table in front of their child, and then proceed to ignore them for the duration of the meal. I am NOT suggesting that you do this!

Instead, we bring a small backpack filled with supplies (diaper changing gear) and toys. Sometimes he's content to color with the crayons and placemat the restaurant provides, but other times he picks some toys out of the bag, and happily plays with them.

At home, we have a strict "no toys at the dinner table" policy, but this rule is suspended at restaurants.

The only rules we enforce at the restaurant are:

  • No throwing
  • We use our "quiet" voices (how quiet this is depends upon the ambient noise level in the restaurant)
  • No disturbing other patrons in the restaurant

The last one is sometimes the hardest, but the way we usually address it is "sit facing front!". This is usually reserved for whenever he starts to peer over the back of his seat to look at the people behind him (assuming someone is at the adjoining booth/table).

Any infringement of the "no throwing" rule results in immediately losing whatever it is he threw, and a stern warning (we've never had a second offense in one sitting).

If he starts to get too loud, we remind him to use his "quiet" voice. Sometimes it takes 2 or 3 reminders, but rarely more than that.

On the (very rare!) occasion that he starts screaming/crying uncontrollably, one of us will ask him if he needs to go outside with one of us. I think there was only one instance where that didn't immediately calm him (I did follow through by taking him outside the restaurant until he had calmed down).

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I know this will not be a popular option, but when we go to my daughter's favorite place we allow her to use "her phone" (aka my old phone) that has age-appropriate games and videos on it IF she behaves and AFTER she finishes her meal, (and while her parents play Buzztime trivia.) For those rare times she does begin to misbehave - usually because it is too crowded or too loud - we tell her that if she can't behave properly we won't be coming back. We also try not to stay as long during these times.

This is one of those things I said I would NEVER do before I was a mom. I've found that you learn to adjust those expectations.

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