The Gleeful Gourmand: Toddler Table Manners

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Toddler Table Manners

Yesterday I was reading Eatocracy’s latest blog post on CNN, and it was all about bad behavior of large groups while eating out, especially during the holidays. What surprised me wasn’t the number of people who agreed in the comments that table manners in general have gone downhill, but rather the sheer outrage of some comments over having to dine with children in the same establishment. Some even went so far to say that children shouldn’t dine out at all. That, of course, got me thinking about my 3-year-old son, and how we like to eat out during the weekends.

First of all, I agree that table manners in general have really hit a low point, but I come from an old-school mentality that how you behave at the dinner table, either in a restaurant or at home, really matters. My parents raised us to have impeccable manners at the table, and it started at home with some simple rules. Chew with your mouth closed. Your left hand belongs in your lap. When you’re finished, your fork and your knife are placed together on the plate, parallel to the bottom. And when we went out to eat, we knew what to expect. We were expected to sit there for the whole meal, and be quiet with our conversations, or else. My parents never would have allowed us to run all over any restaurant – it simply wasn’t done.

I’ve taken a similar approach with my son, and while it hasn’t been an easy road, it’s been a very rewarding one. Liam was dining out with us as early as 4 weeks old – when we just couldn’t stand being housebound one more moment. He slept through the whole meal. As he’s gotten older, we’ve put some pretty firm rules in place, again starting as early as possible. He sits with us at the dinner table, and he is not allowed to throw his food (and if he does he gets a timeout). He doesn’t have to eat everything on his plate, but he does have to at least try everything on it. Dinner is over when we say it’s over (but usually he knows it’s over when we deny his request for that third handful of animal crackers). When we go out, the same is expected of him there.

I firmly believe that there is a place for children in restaurants, but there is a time for everything (which I’ll get to in a moment). And here’s something even more shocking: You can have well-behaved children at your table at home and out to eat. You just have to be willing to work at it. It occurred to my husband and I that not only as our children get older will they be joining us more and more out to eat, but they will be eating at finer establishments eventually. What we teach them now sets them up for success later. It can be done. Here’s how we’ve done it:

1) Knowing that as toddlers, you have to set boundaries for what you want and expect to get out of it. Only you can decide the ultimate outcome, whether it’s simply fun family dinnertime at home, or well-behaved kids in a restaurant. Know that as you set up these boundaries, your toddler will cross them again, and again, and again. It’s going to be hard. Know what you’re willing to live with, and what deserves discipline. Have patience.
2) Decide before you get started what rules you want to set up, and which ones you’re willing to let slide. If you know the rules, it makes things so much easier.
3) The more you practice at home during meals, the easier it will be to take your children out in public.
4) Be willing to discipline your children in public spaces. What I mean by that is this: My son, at 3, now knows what to expect when we go out to eat. And when he starts misbehaving, we give him a warning: Stop what you’re doing, or we go out to the car for a timeout. And yes, I have taken him out to the car for a timeout, and yes, it did work.
5) In the early toddler years, get your practice out to eat at places that you know are family-friendly. Don’t set yourself up for failure in the beginning! When we started with Liam around 1, we tried to hit mealtime out as close to 5 p.m. as possible. That way, he wasn’t too hungry and impatient, and there weren’t too many other diners to bother if he did get unruly. We still try to dine between 5-6 p.m. as a rule, and now that he’s older we get to go to better restaurants as a result.
6) It’s usually a good idea to bring things for your toddler to do: crayons, activity books, etc. When they’re this young, it’s almost a necessity. However, just as I don’t condone children running around a restaurant I also don’t condone children who are older than, say, 6 sitting at a table and reading or playing video games. This is a great time for you and your children to interact, and for your children to learn good social and communication skills. They can’t do that if they’re glued to their handheld device. That goes for you, too, parents. Not only are your kids watching how you treat your waiters, but they’re also watching as you fiddle on your Blackberry.
7) If you know that you don’t have the patience for the above on a certain day, throw in the towel! Get a babysitter, and go out. Because there’s no way you’re going to be able to handle your toddler when you’re already at the end of your rope. Give yourself a break, and try again another time.

And to all those out there who cannot stand to have a child in their midst when they dine out: Lighten up! Realize that most parents are doing the very best they can, but sometimes kids will be kids. If the parent disciplines, and takes care of the problem, commend that parent for their skills. If they don’t – well, I don’t have any advice for that because I’m typically a non-confrontational person.

Here’s the plain and simple of it: The ultimate goal is for those kids to one day grow up and sit in your seat, and dine respectably. And they cannot do that if we put them in a bubble and never let them out.

P.S. - I know the photo of Liam isn't really him eating at a restaurant, but it sure is cute, huh?


Kirsten Oliphant said...

Great tips! I agree with a lot of what you say, but I will also say that it seems to me that the outrage at children in restaurants comes from parents NOT being responsible about their children in public. (I'd say in general, not just in a restaurant.) I understand why so many people are against kids in restaurants, because if you're paying for a meal, you're paying also for the ambience and the setting, and often crying, screaming, or misbehaving children affect that. It shouldn't be a blanket statement though, because there are great parents like you really working with their kids and teaching them.

With Saw, we have the extra challenge of having and INTENSELY active boy. Take the normal toddler fidgety-ness and multiply it. His ability to sit still is gone by the time we have ordered, and this is true from the time he was about 6 months on. In a lot of ways, taking him to a restaurant PERIOD and asking him to sit still is setting him up for failure. (We're going to have the same issues with real school also, and I've already had conversations with the children's director at church regarding his enormously high and intense activity level. She had a son like this as well, so has some good tips, thankfully.)

I'm not trying to justify here, and we definitely WILL be training him in manners here and out, but because we have a super limited eating-out budget, if we are eating out, I'd rather leave him at home and enjoy the meal with Rob than take him and do the work it would take to get him to be confined to the table.

I think that as he grows older and is able to control his impulses more and is a little more mature, maybe he'll be able to join us and we can all enjoy. For now, we only eat out at a mexican place with a patio next to a playground and everyone's happy. :)

Sorry for the novel of a comment, but thanks for the post and I am definitely going to take your tips! Way to be a responsible parent!

Jenna said...

I completely agree with you! I think there are always exceptions to the rule, and Sawyer is one. My only advice would be not to put it off too long, because the more he gets set in his ways regrading the table, the harder I think it will be to get him to comply.

So, just to keep it real: When we were at the Homestead this weekend, we had a moment where we were out to lunch with Liam, and he started totally misbehaving, whining, trying to take his shoes off and messing with everything on the table. I took him out of his high chair, and walked him out of the restaurant and into a secluded alcove (so I wouldn't embarrass him) where I gave him a talking to. And for the rest of the meal, he was well behaved. So I just wanted to reiterate to all of you out there that my kid is by no means perfect, but this has been my approach to handling his imperfect moments, and it's worked like a charm.

Kirsten said...

I really enjoyed reading this post and agree that the way kids act at home should be the same as when they are out. Now how do you keep Liam in his seat? If Isabella is not strapped in she wants to stand up or get out. It does not help that Isabella eats like a bird. :0

Jenna said...

Oh, I keep Liam strapped in. At home he's in his booster seat, and I've always kept it buckled, and out I put him in a high chair - mostly so he can be at the same height as the table, but moreover because at this stage if he had a booster out to eat, he'd want to escape.

There have been many times when we've had to tell him to sit down in the high chair, though. We don't buckle that and we have to remind him that we don't stand on the chair.

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