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Jul 28, 2008 09:25 AM

Teaching children to behave at restaurants

Hi, I'd like to tap into any knowledge from Chowhound parents who have taught their Chowpups how to eat and generally behave in public places like restaurants.
I have a one year old and shy away from taking him to eateries other than the local Indian and Turkish holes in the wall, where, till date, he has been pretty well-behaved, but now that he is getting more mobile, I can see that unless we start some serious restaurant-training, we won't be able to eat out anywhere nice for years.
I have noticed that French and Italian kids seem to be remarkably well-adjusted to restaurant atmosphere, sitting nicely at the table and eating with the grown-ups. British kids less so.
I would dearly appreciate any tips from parents on how to train a future Chowhound!

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  1. Hi:

    Please help us keep the discussion here on topic, pleasant and constructive. General discussions about whether or not children 'belong' in restaurants are off-topic.

    Thank you.

    1 Reply
    1. re: The Chowhound Team

      No, thank YOU. I for one appreciate this recommendation.

    2. I believe the key is to teach good manners at home and at the family dinner table. If it becomes their normal, then it's easier for them to adapt elsewhere. In my experience too many parents lower the expectations at home and then are surprised when the kids are unruly when they are out.

      17 Replies
      1. re: Janet from Richmond

        Agreed. I was taught good manners, and though I did my best to irk my mother at other times, I was always respectful and well-behaved in public. Of course, I was reared in meanderthal times, before it became de rigueur to address one's teachers and other adults and people in positions of authority by their first names ... but I digress ...

        Also it helped that I was at an early age exposed to a variety of foodstuffs. This was in part due to my mother's eclectic palate and superb skill in the kitchen and the fact that I grew up in an immgrant neighbourhood where informal "day care" occurred between families of different cultures because a majority of families had both parents working.

        1. re: mrbozo

          I agree with Janet - it starts at home. Back in the last century, when I was growing up with 4 siblings, we knew (because we were constantly reminded) what constituted good manners. Approaching a restaurant as a group, we were reminded again that only our BEST behaviour would be tolerated. Anything less would result in "THE LOOK" and then, if it persisted. we would all be leaving, whether or not the food had been served. It only had to happen once for the lot of us to get the message.

          My parents felt that the best place for us to learn how to act in public was IN PUBLIC, so we were regularly taken, individually and as a group, to eat in progressively nicer places as we got older. My siblings have carried on this tradition, and I must say that my nieces and nephews, from the youngest to the oldest, are a pleasure to take to any restaurant. The youngest nephew, at almost 7 years of age, likes to point out the rowdy and rude children in restaurants and say "I never act like THAT!"

          Re: the OP's one-year-old .... yes, there will be a time when you really cant take him anywhere ... but once he learns to control some of his impulses, and the consequences therein, you'll be able to take him to better places. Just respect his tiredness factor and short attention span, and choose restaurants accordingly, In another thread someone mentioned that they often take their small children to Chinese buffet places, where they dont have to choose from a menu, the food comes almost immediately, and the child gets a chance to sample lots of different things, and/or have as much or as little of something that he/she likes.

          1. re: Cheflambo

            Ha - I just posted about "the look", having not seen your post!

            1. re: MMRuth

              "THE LOOK" - often given over the edge of the reading glasses of either Mom or Dad - was usually enough to quiet any of the three of us. I can recall perhaps only once when one of us was forcibly removed from the restaurant, had a good talking to outside, and was then allowed to return to the restaurant's table thoroughly chastened. Usually THE LOOK took care of it. :-)

              1. re: LindaWhit

                JUST got back from the grocery store w/ my two kids in tow. They got "the look" and quickly shut it and straightened up. It's a classic.

                I, too, agree w/ Janet. Expect them to behave at home as well as out. And, if they are unruly, by all means take them and leave as quickly as possible so as not to disturb other diners. At home, send them to their room. Next time you try to dine out, remind them of what happened last time and how they ended up in their room.

                1. re: lynnlato

                  I agree, too! there is no difference between eating at home and in a restaurant. We eat all our meals sitting together at the dining table, none of this eating on the fly, in the car, leaning against the counter, etc. I brought up three boys, who always had dinner at the dining room table, just like I did when I was growing up, learning table manners largely by example, but also learning conversation, love of food, the sanctity (!) of sitting together... even if it meant me breast feeding at the table if I had to. French and Italian children are brought up doing this, and in fact probably eat out more often with their families than US children. Not that they were always perfect: one (4) bit the lip off a crystal wine goblet, another (2) escaped and ran out into the place in Arras.

                  1. re: cassis

                    Amen, cassis. We are a sit at the table together kind of family too. It's important to me and I enjoy it and think we're better as a family b/c of it.

                    That crystal wine goblet episode sounds like it was scary - yikes!

                    1. re: cassis

                      BIT through the wine glass? Holy merde!

                      Agreed about the sacrosanct family dinner - my son requires a sit-down dinner for all, every single night, no matter how late the lunch or how hungry he isn't. There just needs to some kind of be proper food at a table that we all sit at, period. He has been like this since he was too little it say it clearly.

                      1. re: cassis

                        What?!? Breastfeeding at the table?!? ;o) Though i have to disagree. My kids behave well enough bring to them to restaurants (they are 3 and 6), but we have very liberal rules about food at home. Food is almost always eaten at the table, but not always together as a family (my kids and I snack constantly throughout the day instead of eating full meals), and they can get up and down as much as they like (except for dinners). Children are much better at differentiating than we give them credit for, and (spoken) expectations make all the difference.

                        1. re: cassis

                          But of course the babe has to eat too! Why not at the table with everyone else?

                        2. re: lynnlato

                          fMy otherwise well-behaved daughter once was AWFUL while we were waiting for ice cream at the end of a meal. She was so awful we got up and left, after warning her that we would do that if she didn't stop. All the way home her little sister kept wondering why SHE had been deprived of the ice cream she was waiting for, just because of her big sister's behavior. The little one got ice cream when we got home; the big one didn't. Both remember the event.

                          1. re: somervilleoldtimer

                            And that is what is important - they *both* remember the event....and I'm sure learned from it.

                2. re: Janet from Richmond

                  I absolutely agree with Janet - my first thought was if they act properly at home, then they will be more inclined to do so when out at a restaurant. Just as my parents would send me to bed without supper if I or my siblings acted up, we also knew the entire family would leave if one of us acted up in a restaurant setting.

                  Having said that - it's helpful if the parents bring a small coloring book and perhaps Cheerios (depending on the age of the child) to keep them busy while the restaurant is preparing the family's meal. For a very young child, being seated at the table means "food will be put in front of me right now" (at home), whereas in a restaurant, that can't always happen as quickly as the young child might expect. Setting those expectations at an early age that, when in a restaurant, they're making the food right then and there for the family and it's not ready to be served yet, will be helpful to all.

                  1. re: Janet from Richmond


                    That is the perfect place to begin. If taught well, and if the demonstrations by parents and siblings are good, the child will not feel ill at ease in a restaurant. I was lucky, in that I got plenty of "instruction" at home, and also from my governess. When I "graduated" to restaurants, it was a big deal. Yes, there were times that the lessons were forgotten, but I was always reminded of them, and knew to behave.


                    1. re: Janet from Richmond

                      Agree 100%. My girls were taught at an early age and now sometimes drive each other correcting each other if one slips up! I found taking them to a restaurant with a buffet when they are young really helps because there are so many options there will be something that they like and new things to look at and try. Also, there is a lot more movement and therefore more noise so while they are learning it is not noticed as much.

                      1. re: 37998Susan

                        As a first-time expectant mother, the buffet tip is really smart. Thanks!

                        1. re: invinotheresverde

                          Beware of buffets with really little kids (like under 6): your kid may get the idea that it's okay to get up and walk around the restaurant, and buffets are difficult if you're alone with small kids because you need to take them with you every time you get up. They can work, but definitely have another adult with you.

                          What's worked best for us with table manners in general is positive reinforcement -- I tell my son that when he was little, I didn't like taking him to restaurants because he was noisy and couldn't sit in his seat and made a mess, but now that he's big (3!) I love taking him to restaurants because he has such nice table manners and eats his food and we sit and have a nice conversation. While we're eating, I talk about how much I'm enjoying being there with him because of his good table manners.

                    2. I think exposing a child to a restaurant when they are little is important. But like alot of behavioral issues it starts at home with how the parents interact with their child.

                      We go out to eat alot with our almost 2 year old daughter, from hole in the wall spots, to chains, to the occasional $300+ meal at a top steakhouse in CHicago. Having your child have a wide palate, and to enjoy the food you are eating is a great start. Start sharing food off your plate as early as possible to accomplish this(our daughter eats crab, shrimp, lobster, caju food, middle eastern food, bbq, and pretty much everything we enjoy). Also diversions(books coloring books, etc) are a good tool, as well as both parents being ready to get up from the table with an antsy toddler to burn off some energy/boredom.

                      Good luck, patience, and understanding is the key I think.

                      11 Replies
                      1. re: swsidejim

                        "Also diversions(books coloring books, etc) are a good tool, as well as both parents being ready to get up from the table with an antsy toddler to burn off some energy/boredom."

                        being ready to get up from the table is key. Also, understanding that there are time when nothing's going to work and you just have to bail. There is a time (usually between 2 and 3 years old) where it just may be hard to go to a really nice place with your kid. It is not possible to reason with a toddler that doesn't want to be there. However, you may be as lucky as Swsidejim and have a 2 year old that is very well-behaved, and never have to worry! ( I agree it isn't just luck, behavior starts at home. But there are also some kids that are easier to deal with than others by nature)

                        We have many good friends with children of varying ages, and we spend a lot of time eating out with them. For the most part, these outings have been very pleasant and fun. But it is very important to be aware of how your child is doing, and be realistic about their limits. To quote the sage Kenny Rogers:

                        You gotta know when to hold 'em
                        Know when to fold 'em,
                        Know when to walk away,
                        Know when to run...

                        1. re: moh

                          she has her moments as all children that age do..., :-)

                          like you said you have to be quick on your feet, and know whose turn it is to adjourn from the table until it is safe to come back. We are very conscious of the other customers, and do not want to be rude by doing nothing.

                          1. re: swsidejim

                            "We are very conscious of the other customers, and do not want to be rude by doing nothing."

                            Swsidejim, this is also key! As it has been said, good behavior starts at home. Kids learn their behaviors from their parents, and if parents set a good example by being considerate of others, the kids pick it up. I am always grateful to see this kind of consideration. Meltdowns happen, and that is fine, kids will be kids, and we love them for it. But it is gratifying to see parents deal with meltdowns in an appropriate manner.

                            I take back my statement about you being lucky to have a well-behaved 2 year old! You are also clearly doing something right :)

                            I am a little embarrassed about my memories of my behaviors as a child in restaurants. I was a hyper child, a bit precocious, and a little outgoing. And my parents had their hands full. Now, I ate very well, and would eat whatever was there! But I was very active and probably a little loud. I'd like to think it turned out ok... although now that I think about it, perhaps nothing has changed??? So Medgirl, take heart. The fact that you are even trying to train your chowpup is a good start. There will always be loud-mouth schnooks like me to make your chowpup look like an angel...

                            1. re: swsidejim

                              ah, yes -- thank you for that awareness and for your knowledge that others may find your children not as charming as you do.

                            2. re: moh

                              Agreed on all comments regarding training at home, exposing a child early to restaurants, and being ready to bail. Maybe I was lucky, but the small number of times that I actually picked up my daughter and walked out to the parking lot while telling her that we needed to go home was enough to stop any crying or carrying on by the time she was three. She was so horrified that we were going to leave, that she cried more in order to get back into the restaurant, promising to be good. Before she was able to communicate this, we just got out of there quickly so that we didn't ruin the atmosphere for everyone else in the restaurant. So, we ate off-hours at family places, and ate quickly.

                              A couple of observations: If you need to distract your child with games and toys in order to eat a basic meal, you may be staying in the restaurant too long. They can deal with it for 30 minutes at most. Pick the restaurant accordingly. Nothing was worse than driving a long way to meet family at a restaurant for Mother's Day etc., removing my child from her car seat after a long drive, and then strapping her into a booster seat (bring your own, but that is another topic) for a long meal. Little kids just can't sit still that long. It is pure torture, and you can't blame them for acting up. Between the car ride and the meal, they need to get some energy out of them. My friends and I would have all rather eaten at someone's home than a restaurant for a celebration during those years.

                              When she was about three, we starting letting her dress up for the special occasion with junky jewelry and fancier clothes. That also seemed to inspire good behavior.

                              We also always ate as a family, and that seemed to help prep for the experience. I see lots of Moms who feed their children "kid food" before Dad gets home, and they never eat together. Those kids don't seem to know the experience of sitting at the big table and behaving accordingly, especially if they were allowed to run amok while gobbling chicken nuggets. Note that traditionally, Italian and French families eat together with their children, so this may be a clue about how to train them at home.

                              In the end, though, it may just be that some kids are naturally better at this than others.

                              1. re: RGC1982

                                We also always ate as a family, and that seemed to help prep for the experience. I see lots of Moms who feed their children "kid food" before Dad gets home, and they never eat together. Those kids don't seem to know the experience of sitting at the big table and behaving accordingly
                                YES, RGC! When we were old enough, we always ate together as a family (unless Dad was traveling for business, of course). Only if he were going to be home after 8pm did Mom feed us earlier (and often, she ate with us and then sat with Dad while he ate when he got home). Very important to eat together - find out what went on during everyone's day, discuss "problems of the day" and just be a family together. Hard to do nowadays with everyone going sixty-leven different ways with soccer, ballet, theater, etc., but it should be done as often as possible.

                                1. re: RGC1982

                                  When I was growing up we "ate as a family" and I still have horrible memories about that. God- my parents were both drunk y then and wanted to teach us both a lesson, with corporal punishment generously applied for every realor imagined transgression. I resolved to make things easier on my son. We had a little house that was laid out weird, so we ate in the living room, often together, but DH was a forest service firefighter in southern AZ and was gone a lot during the summer. What I taught was respect and learning to appreciate good food, and whatever family (nuclear or extended) happeed to be present. We lucked out, Young Son has always loved restaurants (to the point of being almost too excited to eat at times), and don't think I don't count that as a huge blessing.

                                  If your child is a hooniac (cross between a hooligan and a maniac)- and you know who you are-, please take pity on your fellow diners and take them to restaurants that are noisy anyway. They'll mature eventually, and you can then expand their repertoire. But you're STILL obligated to not let them spin out of control even when you're at a noisy place.

                                  1. re: EWSflash

                                    That is an extremely good suggestion - noise level can work in your favor if the general din of happy, slightly buzzed adults talking and laughing covers the occasional yelp from your young diner.

                                2. re: moh

                                  My parents did this as well. Manners were enforced in the home as well as outside.
                                  If I became unruly in public, first stop was the bathroom. If for any reason I caused them to have to get up and leave.. there were repercussions to face at home whether it was favorite toys taken away for a period of time, grounding or even a spanking.. depending on your rearing preferences and what is effective for each child.
                                  And there was no waffling on punishment. If one parent stated grounding, the other backed them up.

                                  1. re: moh

                                    What great thoughtful comments! Usually a thread on this topic is locked by now. :) I can remember being dragged to many fancy places by my parents. The coloring books really helped. Once I learned to read it was good times. I haven't read all the comments but one suggestion from that little girl that was me is that if you have to travel quite a while to get to the restaurant someone needs to volunteer to take the kid for a walk or tour around the restaurant to blow off some steam. Too much sitting down can make for a twitchy little diner.
                                    I know of one boy who was never taken anywhere, not even to the supermarket. This may have made life easier for the parents, but when he went on a class trip in fourth grade he was so excited to be somewhere besides home or school that he bounced off the walls of the bus while all the other kids calmly sat and enjoyed the movie on the way back. I'm pretty sure eating out would have been like wrestling an octopus.

                                    1. re: givemecarbs

                                      Yes! It's unfair to the child to sit in a car, sit all day, and then sit in a restaurant. Plan appropriately!

                                      On our recent vacation to northern California, on long driving days, we ordered pizza into our hotel rooms, but ate 9 course tasting menus on evenings when we had plenty of time to play outside and run around. It's all about planning.

                                      Children misbehaving in restaurants are the parents' fault. Always.

                                3. OK not having children but having been a child who was taken to restaurants at a young age, I think it all starts at home. We were taught to try a little of everything on our plate and not make a big deal of something if we didn't like it. That being said we ate pretty much everything. At restaurants my sibs and I always surprised servers by ordering the "grown-up" food, and making the server glance at my parents to make sure this was ok. I gotta say, who wants a burger with no toppings, a la "kids menu"?
                                  Also remember that you can "modify" some meals as well, ie "can you put the au poivre sauce on the side of my daughters' steak?" Just in case it's too spicy, also kids love to dip stuff :)
                                  Colouring books and things that don't make noise are good ideas too, as sometimes the wait for 5 entrees can be a bit long to a kid of 4 or 5.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: starlady

                                    No kidding, kids' menus are typically gross and almost always junk food. My kids can't read yet, so I typically don't tell them about the kids' menu unless I'm desperate (mainly because of the "junk" aspect)!

                                  2. Lots of great advice, I think. I don't have children, and so will just comment as one who was brought to restaurants from an early age (mostly in Europe, as a child) and dines with friends with children.

                                    There was "the look" from my mother (also meted out in church), that meant that if you don't shape up, there will be consequences. That seemed to work, though I'm guessing a child has to be of a certain age for it to be effective. I don't recall, particularly in upscale restaurants, my parents bringing us things to entertain ourselves with, but I think it's a good idea - though, presumably, there is an age level at which children should be able to participate in conversation ,etc. such that it is no longer needed.

                                    When I eat out and there are children nearby, I always appreciate it when parents are willing to take the children outside if they start to disturb the dining of others.

                                    (As an aside, a favorite story of mine that I read somewhere, was a young child at a nice restaurant, behaving well, who got up and went to a table of loud men and asked them to please use their "inside" voices!)

                                    5 Replies
                                      1. re: MMRuth

                                        For us, consequences is the most important. While it sucks to have to leave a restaurant if our child is misbehaving, what sucks far more is not being able to ever go to restaurants because the child can't hack it.

                                        We take our son to restaurants frequently (he's 4 now) and have done so since he was an infant. If he ever made noise, we left. Sometimes, mid-meal (one of us staying behind to settle up and get doggy bags). But once he was about 2 1/2, he knew what was expected of him, and was very capable of behaving in a restaurant. Now we get stares if we take him into a fine-dining establishment, but guaranteed he's the quietest person in the room. Everyone assumes small children can't behave. But poor behavior in a restaurant is *always* the parents' fault.

                                        1. re: Indirect Heat

                                          "For us, consequences is the most important. While it sucks to have to leave a restaurant if our child is misbehaving, what sucks far more is not being able to ever go to restaurants because the child can't hack it."

                                          Thank you, thank you. I don't have kids, but spent a lot of time with my sister and niece. That was the big threat to my niece when we were out, not just at restaurants but also at the grocery store, visiting friends, etc. ''Straight home, straight to bed". Yes, it sucked having to leave the grocery store with the shopping half done or miss out on a dinner out, but it only took once or twice with follow through to make the point.

                                          1. re: Sooeygun

                                            "Yes, it sucked having to leave the grocery store with the shopping half done or miss out on a dinner out, but it only took once or twice with follow through to make the point."

                                            This is so true. I know so many parents who don't follow through with the consequences and you can imagine what the results of THAT are. Not pretty.

                                        2. re: MMRuth

                                          What a fabulous story! I would have loved to see that.