Eating Where You’re Not Welcome and Five Tips For Dining With Children

waiter

Swanky lights. High bar tables with stools that have no backing.  Pricey, a la carte menu.  No kids options.  No kids cups.  No fun straws.  Dirty looks from the hostess.  Rudeness from the wait staff.  Side eyes from patrons.  

For any culinary adventurous parent with young children, we’ve all been there.  It’s not a welcoming feeling and it’s extremely natural to go into a shelled-up, protective mode.

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To backtrack a little, Valentine’s Day is not a huge deal to my wife and I.  Instead of getting a babysitter and having a romantic dinner out alone, we decided to go out to dinner and a movie with our kindergarten-aged kids.  We set sail for a new local culinary spot we’d been hearing great things about.  The name and location of restaurant are somewhat irrelevant because it is not the first time or the last time we’ve experienced some noticeable reactions of restaurant personnel and patrons.

Sometimes it’s just the lack of a kids menu and a resistance to provide any flexible meal options by the kitchen.  Sometimes the wait staff can be rude or inattentive.  Sometimes the planets align and all the barriers to having a relaxing meal out with the people you love are built up around you.  This was the case when we went to dinner out to a new cutting edge culinary spot as a family on Valentine’s Day.

The first thing that can enter your mind in a situation like this is that maybe it’s best to just leave and pick a new place.  This both entered my mind and my wife’s mind on this specific night.  We made eye contact with each other and without speaking much, we decided if we simply left… that the terrorists would have won.  By terrorists I mean the snark-filled, pretentious, pessimistic masses that expect tons for children of our future, but don’t provide them any guidance, lessons or benefit of the doubt.

America is fat and parents are to blame, people say. Kids are rude and disrespectful to elders, people say.   Kids are loud, obnoxious, and can ruin a culinary experience, people say.  Kids need to learn manners, people say.  Our future is dim, people say.

Parents of children are tasked with raising the next generation well and proving these people wrong.  One task that is paramount to overcoming this culinary issue is a topic that is more broad that only talking in terms of restaurant behavior.  The task that I’m getting at that it really hard to teach children and the task that is taken for granted by random bystanders in public is called situational awareness.

“Situational awareness is a term used to describe a persons awareness of their surroundings, the meaning of these surroundings, a prediction of what these surroundings will mean in the future, and then using this information to act.”

Strangers and bystanders expect kids to develop manners, good eating habits, and social skills, but can be reluctant and show little patience when kids practice and hone these skills in the real world.

Kids that can develop situational awareness quickly can earn the trust, respect and praise of onlooking adults.

In rough terms, situational awareness when talking about raising children means, when to act a fool and when to mind your p’s and q’s.  When to run, play and scream, and when to wipe your mouth when there is queso dip wedged at the corners of your lips.  When to sing and dance and when to respond with please and thank you.

Parents that don’t expose their children to public situations like upscale culinary meals, celebratory events, cultural performances, sporting events, musical performances and philanthropic opportunities can be hard-pressed to teach kids the lessons of situational awareness.

So the terrorists weren’t going to win on the night we went to a fancy restaurant on Valentine’s Day.  We were going to power through and show the people there that our children could handle the situation.  Our children were lectured before we even knew what kind of establishment we were getting into that the reward for behaving themselves could potentially be big…  SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water…  in 3D at the movie theater!

The kids sat down in the sketchy high stools at the swanky restaurant with only tall tables and no kids menu.  They verbally ordered their own food, unaided by their parents.  They drank their rare treat of a soda pop out of a tall glass with no straw without spilling or breaking the glass.  They kept their voice below the volume of the white noise that filled the restaurant and watched a college basketball game on television while their parents caught up with one another in conversation.  They walked to restrooms in the back of the restaurant and didn’t run amok.  They stayed in their seats for at least 90% of the hour plus meal.  They played on their iPads with low volume after they finished their meal. Not all meals go this well, but I think our kids sensed that we needed them to hit a home run in this certain situation.

Towards the end of the meal the wait staff warmed to our table.  They were more attentive to our needs  their apprehension turned into relief.  They spoke of the harsh winter weather outside and asked about our plans for the rest of our night.  Surrounding patrons politely stopped turning their side-eyes to us and focused-in on one another.  The restaurant that was once made us feel like outlaws eventually felt welcoming.

Now that we know the vibe of this particular restaurant, we probably won’t return again with the kids.  We respect its vibe and its niche in the community and we’ll return alone as a couple or perhaps they will eventually make the spot more family friendly.   Perhaps they can survive and prosper with this type of vibe, or perhaps they will suffer the consequences and be ultimately unsuccessful due to reducing the segment of the population that would consider their spot for a weekend dinner.  Time will indeed tell.

This experience, however, won’t stop us from trying new places in the area and introducing our children to new, unchartered, and unfamiliar experiences.  Putting children in these types of new and uncomfortable type situations can help children develop social skills, manners and grow their personal situational and self-awareness.

Below are five tips for comfortably dining out with children:

  • Attempt to get a sense of if a restaurant is family-friendly through word of mouth and if questions still persist, call the restaurant directly.
  • Establish the expectations for behavior with your children prior to entering the establishment.  Reward good behavior and correct poor manners.
  • Maintain control of the situation and always discipline in private.  Remove any misbehaving child from the dining area to a waiting room or bathroom and correct their behavior privately as to not embarrass yourself or your child.
  • Bring children activities that can help pass down time at the restaurant, like quiet toys, coloring books, puzzles or quiet electronic entertainment devices.
  • If the wait staff is friendly and flexible to your family, tip generously.  Note out exceptional service with the manager in-person, via written letter or on social media.
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