Dos and Don’ts

It keeps happening. This summer, Malaysia Airlines banned babies from first class flights on its Airbus A380 and McDain’s Restaurant in Pennsylvania decided to prohibit customers under the age of six. And we see another firestorm of  angry, fierce arguments about the rights of kids and families to go where they want and do as they please. This debate will never end and the often sensationalist headlines will continue as long as there are children in the world. So where’s the sane middle ground?

At the risk of sounding like a bossy mom, may I humbly offer these SUGGESTED Dos and Don’ts for both parents/caretakers and non-parents to consider when it comes to the issue of children and behavior (or misbehavior, as the case may be) in public, often confined, settings. These please-keep-in-mind tidbits are mostly about eating out in restaurants based on my experience — not necessarily expertise! — yet also apply to other stressful settings such as airplanes. Because having kids or being happily child-free factors into just about every aspect of our lives, it behooves both sides to have greater compassion. I myself need to start by forgiving more, and judging less. We are far from perfect. OK, time to step off soapbox.

I’d LOVE to hear what you readers think. Are these guidelines crazy cakes? Sensible? Hooey filled chuztpah? What would you change? What’s missing?

To Parents and Caretakers:

DO feel like you can still have a life out in the world that includes your kids.

DO eat dinner in restaurants early. But you probably knew that already.

DO continually thank your servers and everyone else who is helping out, whether it’s on an airplane or restaurant. Tip well.

DO step outside as soon as you can (gathering gear, sippy cups, other children etc. permitting) if they become noticeably disruptive. This means shouting, crying, throwing, or any sort of behavior that would be deemed intolerable for any human being, regardless of age. If you need to bail completely, restaurant staffs will gladly bring you your check quickly and pack your food to go.

DO make efforts to expose children to new environments, but be prepared to handle the consequences and get out if things get rocky.

DO try to relax. (Often the hardest one.)

DO keep in mind that people without kids want to enjoy their meal, date, etc. with reasonable amount of peace and quiet.

DO positively reinforce good behavior and respect. This can take the form of verbal compliments, a pat on the head, a new book, a cookie. Up to you. We all have different ways of handling these situations.

DO be understanding and tolerant of businesses owners that want to impose some fair restrictions on children in order to protect the experience of their customers and the integrity of their enterprise. Subjective, I know.

DO try to think back to when you were a kid. Is this someplace you would realistically be brought to and behave well?

And the corollary point: DON’T idealize your seven-year-old self.

DON’T think you can take your kids everywhere.

DON’T assume everyone else thinks your kid’s antics are adorable.

DON’T enforce unrealistic expectations. If you don’t think they can sit still through a long dinner and would rather be home, then honor that.

DON’T tolerate an outright ban on all families because some ruin it for the rest of us! This would not stand with most other groups in society.

DON’T forget that because other people might not approve of your child’s behavior or look askance doesn’t automatically mean that they are not parents themselves.

To The Child-Free:

DO understand that the old cliché is true: kids are people, too. Yes, perhaps they’re overly doted over or given too much leeway in our current parenting culture. But they have feelings and insights, and generally want to please adults.

DO remember you were a kid once. And you probably didn’t always make life perfect for your parents.

DO keep in mind that when it comes to behaving respectfully in public, many adults also have a lot to learn. (Looking at you, the guy video chatting right next to me at Intelligentsia.)

DO know parents and people who love kids respect your right to categorically dislike kids, or at least not want to actively hang out with them. They won’t necessarily always try to convince you otherwise.

DO try to remember that parenting is hard, frustrating work, and solutions to immediate challenges don’t always come easily. One-size-fits-all reprimands aren’t necessarily effective. Some children might have special needs and may not respond to what seem like simple and easy-to-follow behavioral requests. You never know.

DO understand that most — not all — parents you see struggling are probably doing the best they can, and their shame and stress levels are likely higher than your annoyance. It’s not as if they WANT this shitty, irritating thing to happen.

DO feel free to compliment well-behaved kids. Their folks will totally think you’re a rock star for doing so.

DO, if you truly must, find a way to politely tell parents/caregivers if a child is negatively impacting your dining/flying/etc. experience.

DON’T present a complaint as an attack on the child or their parenting/caretaking skills. Instead try to emphasize general courtesy rather than delivering a Parenting 101 lecture — which you may or may not be an expert in.

DON’T assume all families will be loud and obnoxious.

DON’T vilify “bad parents” who “can’t control their kids” just because you might be near one who’s being loud, physically out of control, or just an all-around pain in the arse. Again, you never know what the other circumstances might be.

DON’T refer to children as “those brats,” “demon spawn,” “snot-nosed kids,” and other insults. Remember learning back in preschool not to call people mean names?

DON’T think you can be a part of greater society and exist in a completely child-free vacuum. Or maybe you’ve figured out some kind of arrangement. Good luck with that.

DON’T expect all children to behave as “little adults.” If they can, that’s great! But not all can. Child psychology, emotional development and needs are entirely different from grown-ups. Believe me, I wish I had those things all figured out.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

josh August 11, 2011 at 9:45 am

Great list.

Also, for parents:

DO be prepared and bring entertainment: crayons, paper, books, toys, and yes, iPhones, to keep the kids distracted from going on a rampage. Not every restaurant supplies crayons and paper, and even those that do can cause a fight between two siblings over the crayon selection.

DON’T expect to eat a three-course meal. Your kids will probably not last through your salad course. Skip straight ahead to entrees.

DO order dessert early for the kids if they’ve finished before you and they are desperate.

DO be flexible. If you can’t enjoy your lunch of grilled branzino on your vacation in a little fishing village in Liguria because your kid has lost her mind, then yes, that one time, your kid can have ice cream for lunch.

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Jessica August 11, 2011 at 12:59 pm

Terrific and important additions. Duh, I should have thought of those. :) Thank you!!

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Miriam August 11, 2011 at 1:36 pm

As both a professional chef in a fine dining restaurant and a parent, I have a unique take on both sides. So here are a few more guidelines:
Parents:
Let your server know if your child is starving before they loose it. We can almost always bring something right away or bring your child’s meal first. If you are still waiting for a table, ask the hostess, she can probably bring you bread. Most of us understand that if kids are well taken care of, you can relax and enjoy your dinner and so can everyone else.
Let us know if you need ice, hot water to warm a bottle, straws, cups with lids, extra napkins etc, just remember that bussers are taking care of other customers too, and be as patient as you can. This is a good (if not always fun) learning experience for most kids too. Talk to your kids before you come in the door about what to expect so they can succeed. The expected behavior at Pizza Hut is different than at the Ritz, some restaurants are good for all kids, some are better for older or less energetic kids. Don’t assume that kids will hate the Ritz, someone will carry their plate, give them a brocade pillow if they need a boost at the table and the hot chocolate comes to the table in their own teapot. It can be fun for the right kid. Talk to them about menus too. Not everyplace offers chicken nuggets but most restaurants who don’t have grilled or roasted chicken. Introduce more foods early at home if you want to be able to go to interesting restaurants with your kids. It is unrealistic to expect that if you feed your kids nothing but PB&J at home they will be adventurous when they go out. This is a place to practice your table manners, not enforce clean plate rules. If your small child is used to eating breakfast at 8am and you are coming for brunch at 11am, give them a snack. It is not fair to expect a 4 year old to wait patiently if they are hungry. Also, if you need to have a quick dinner, please let us know, just like someone who needs to make a plane or a show would, white tablecloth restaurants will not assume that you want to be in and out in 45 minutes just because you have kids with you. We will also not bring the kids meal first if you do not let us know, we will assume that you all want to eat together since you came together. A walk around the block can do wonders for everyone’s mood and patience level, but let someone at the table know that they should tell your server to bring your food, the last thing you want to do is wait longer for your food because the sever is trained not to bring it when you are not at the table.
For Non parents:
If you do not want to sit next a new baby, please just let your hostess know, they are usually the best behaved, but it does not matter, we are here to make you as comfortable as possible,as long as we have a table available, we would not sit you next to the back door if you want a window table either. Be prepared to wait for another table if the restaurant is busy though. Please make your needs known politely. These are our customers too and sometimes our regulars. We take the needs of all our guests seriously and your server or host is tightrope walking through it all sometimes. If something is really bothering you, let your server know, they can politely see what they can do about it or get a manager to deal with the situation. You get to avoid a confrontation and no one is put on the spot. It is embarrassing to the restaurant when you are rude to others the same way it is embarrassing to us when they are rude to you.
Most of the kids we see in fine dining are there because it is a special occasion for their family. Plenty of the ones that are there just because it is Saturday night are actually seasoned diners, some of them can make actual diner table conversation, and know which fork is for the salad.

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Cicely August 11, 2011 at 8:54 pm

Hilarious and right-on!

I still remember the server at North Pond in Chicago who asked us RIGHT AWAY if he could bring Parker something (from their excellent kids’ menu)! It was so wonderful that he got it. And yes, I tipped well.

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Jessica August 12, 2011 at 11:45 am

Thanks, Miriam, for your valuable perspective and detailed insight! Nice to hear when food service industry pros can be so accommodating and understanding to all sides. If I’m every in your part of the state, we’ll have to check out your restaurant.

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Jean August 12, 2011 at 4:12 pm

It’s a good idea to remind your server to bring things as they are ready, rather than wait to bring courses. There’s no reason to make the whole party wait just because one person’s order comes with soup or salad.

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Kim Tracy Prince August 15, 2011 at 10:14 am

Wow. You really put a lot of thought into this. I was/am a wimp in these situations – I basically limit my dining out with our children to IHOP and pizza restaurants where everything is plastic or paper.

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Sarah August 15, 2011 at 11:35 am

Yeah, it’s tricky. I have really stayed away from nice restaurants out of fear of other people’s reactions, but every once in a while, like when we’re traveling, we end up at a nice-ish restaurant. At times like those I feel like telling everyone else in the restaurant to suck it if they don’t like it. Which I fully acknowledge is not very adult of me, but I get crap from people for having kids on an airplane, too – and what would they suggest? Leaving my babies at home?

Sometimes you get a quiet dinner in a restaurant and sometimes someone makes noise near you – sometimes that noise comes from a kid and sometimes from an adult. Either way it’s less than ideal, but it’s life.

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Eva Smith August 15, 2011 at 12:41 pm

Great list covering both sides. I accustomed my daughter to eating out at an early age. We had absolutely no problems in the restaurants. However, our problems with the “no Kid” zones actually came from the affluent community we lived in at the time. No kids screaming in the hallways, grassy areas, pools… seriously, who wants to raise their kids like that? We ended up moving to a family friendly community. I certainly don’t mind dining next to kids… mainly because I was a kid once and I raised one.

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Laurel November 16, 2012 at 8:47 pm

I think there is an appropriate setting for parents with babies/toddlers/young kids – and it isn’t a nice restaurant.
Fast food places, coffee shops, chain restaurant breakfast places, Mimi’s, Claim Jumper, whatever, I expect it.

Cheesecake Factory and even more upscale places – its just flat out annoying to be seated next to a table with a high chair, a stroller, a crumb dropping, fussy, noisy or loud kid.
I realize ‘kids will be kids’ and there is a setting where their being kids is not disturbing anyone else.

Its when parents are oblivious to the rights of other adults to enjoy their meals in peace, the rights of others not to be disturbed, the rights of others not to be subject to your offspring who are acting up and you are so used to it you don’t even notice – or worse, think its ‘cute’ that I resent it bitterly. It is inconsideration beyond belief to the rest of us.

If I stood by your table and screamed and kicked and threw my food around, you’d ask the manager to have me thrown out.
Why should it be any different when the person in question is under 3 feet tall?

Why should you have to understand MY right to enjoy a quiet meal with friends in a clean setting? Why should we have to put up with your strollers blocking the aisles? Go somewhere filled with strollers.
Stay away from the white tablecloth romantic restaurants. Stay away from places where adults like to gather and are paying $20 or more per person.

I think its fabulous that that airline banned kids in first class. I wish more restaurants would have sections for people with kids — and soundproof them from the rest of the restaurant where the other people sit.
Same with all the airlines. Stick families in the back ten rows and have a soundproof door separating them from the rest of the plane.

i love it when there are small hotels and bed&breakfast inns that refuse to have anyone under 16 stay there.

When I was a kid, my parents didn’t take me to nice restaurants until I was over 12 years old. They had respect for others.
Too bad more parents nowadays don’t have the same consideration.

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