It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Kid-friendly world, or world-friendly kid?

“Is your restaurant child-friendly?”

A couple of weeks ago, my local paper published an article by a woman whose book (You’ve Been Served) I am sure to buy when it comes out.

I suspect I enjoy children more than Ms. Fox-Revett. “I like children as much as the next person,” she writes. “Which is to say, not very much.” Pfft. Speak for yourself, Ms. F-R. However, the headline — “No one thinks your child is as adorable as you” — had me nodding my head in agreement. Because I love children, yes, I do, but I am not pink-puffy-heart sentimental about them. And, like Ms. Fox-Revett (like most of us, I suspect) I have been held hostage by someone whose doting adoration of their child blinds them to the fact that, rather than being delighted by their child’s antics, I am in fact being harassed and annoyed.

It seems we are united, Ms. Fox-Revett and I, in our dislike of badly behaved children. Yes, yes, I know: it’s not the child, it’s the behaviour we don’t like. True. But when my dinner conversation is drowned out by the obstreperous children two tables over, or my chair jolted by the unruly one as she charges down the centre of the room, that distinction grows pretty fine. Whatever my feelings toward the child, you may be sure I’m not enamored of the parents.

Because my career is childcare, people often assume I love all children without reservation. I must be entirely accepting of such childish foibles, right? Honestly? No. Remember, I have made a career of civilizing children. I know that, barring genuine developmental delay, such behaviour is unnecessary. Parents who allow it are simply rude, and to expect other diners to tolerate it because “he’s only two” is insufferably self-absorbed and inconsiderate. Moreover, I’m the woman whose motto is “We’re not raising children, we’re raising adults.” The self-absorption that’s natural in a two-year-old is not so appealing in a twelve-year-old, and distinctly unpleasant in a twenty-two-year-old. When do you start your child in the process of learning that other people’s needs are as real as his/her own, if not as soon as possible?

“Is your restaurant child-friendly?”

Ms. Fox-Revett points out, rightly, that such a question is nonsensical, and the only appropriate reply (which it seems she bites back) is, “That depends. Is your child restaurant-friendly?”

I discussed the article with a neighbour, formerly in the food service industry, now happily employed in the quieter and arguably more civilized realm of government cubicles. His comment?

“Anyone who would ask that question, you don’t want in your restaurant.”

Indeed. What does the question mean, really? “Are you all right with children leaving their seats and wandering around on their own?” “Is it all right if little Simon crawls under the table, little Suzie sings the ABC song at top volume, wee Lina stands on her chair to comment on the shiny-ness of a fellow-diner’s balding head?” Or perhaps the question refers to the menu? “Do you serve nothing but processed foods heavily salted, laced with fats and devoid of vegetable matter?” (This is familiarly known as the “Children’s Menu”, as if it’s somehow appropriate — required, even — to serve children artery-clogging non-food utterly lacking the nutrition their growing brains and bodies require.)

I have been providing childcare for over a dozen years. I’ve been a parent for over twenty. In all those years there have been two children who, once they got to the age of two or so, I could not take to a restaurant and know that they would behave appropriately: stay seated, not be disruptively loud, and eat what was served without a fuss. (One had a developmental delay; one had an anxiety disorder, both diagnosed by professionals.)

How do I know we could do that? Because we do it at home. Dinners out are earned by consistently good manners at home; when a child knows how to eat nicely at home, we can try doing it in public. If “we” are having a bad day and it turns out we can’t manage it after all, we leave. Not in an angry, punitive way, but only stating something like, “I guess we need to go home now.” (Sometime we go home before we even get there…)

Do I worry about other diners ‘judging’ me? Not particularly. But I am a considerate person. I don’t expect my child to have adult-level good behaviour. Our meals are shorter — no two-hour lingering with a toddler in tow. They’re earlier — dinner at five or 5:30, not 6:30 or later. A certain amount of fidgeting is acceptable, so long as it stays in the chair. I expect to have to remind and coach on manners — chewing with the mouth closed, keeping the voice quiet, using your fork.

I do not, however, expect others to accept that my child has the right to run around the room, to talk to other diners, to shout, to sing, to throw fits about what’s on (or not on) their plate. If this happens, I don’t worry about being judged. I leave. I leave not because I’m afraid of other people’s bad opinion but because to stay, to continue to inflict my fragile, disruptive child on the other diners would be rude — and then, yes, I’d probably be being judged. Not for having an unruly child, but for my own rudeness. Fair enough.

“Is your restaurant child-friendly?” It’s the wrong question, weighted, as it is, with the expectation — unspoken demand, even — that the restaurant (and everyone in it!) adapt itself to the quirks of your particular child.

The best question is not “Is the world adequately accepting of my child?”

The best question is “Am I preparing my child to be functional and considerate in the world?”

May 18, 2010 - Posted by | food, manners, parenting, Peeve me, socializing | , , , ,


  1. I read that as is your child resturant friendly.
    Is your restaurant child-friendly sounded like a typo to mein ears.XD

    No typo! Glad I didn’t confuse you for too long. 🙂

    Comment by Max | May 18, 2010 | Reply

  2. YES YES YES!!!! This is exactly how I feel about children in public. I have always been proud to say that my children do very well in restaurants. They are also expected to behave in grocery stores, bank line ups, and anywhere else they might end up. If they can’t behave, we leave. Immediately.

    Thank you! Teaching your child to get along in society is one of the fundamental tasks of parenting. “Society” includes the mundane — grocery stores, line ups, restaurants, so the opportunities for learning are many and constant.

    Comment by Tammy | May 18, 2010 | Reply

  3. Yes, yes, yes. The *worst* restaurant experience we ever had was dining with friends whose children didn’t stay seated. That meant it was nearly impossible to get ours to do the same. Ugh.

    In a way, I think our kids are restaurant-friendly because we are “selfish” and we like to dine out. So, our kids need to figure out how to do that (or, we need to help them learn how). I still have preferences in restaurants for them though. As you mention, reasonably quick service is a high priority for little ones who will be fine for an hour, but not for three. We don’t need a kids menu, but a willingness to serve a child an appetizer for dinner is much appreciated, for example.

    Being out in public with someone who has totally different standards for their child(ren) can be so awkward! I feel for you.

    There is no doubt that some restaurants work better for children than others. (Guess this makes them ‘child-friendly’, huh??) But of course, as your child grows, matures, and learns the dining-out ropes, the style of dining they can manage becomes more and more sophisticated. One of the tremendous perks of parenting is seeing your child become more and more confident, competent, and capable in the world. That competence comes more quickly when we expect our child to learn to manage/adapt to society, rather than demand that his environment constantly cater to him/her.

    Comment by Sarah | May 18, 2010 | Reply

  4. Usually, if I ask a restaurant if it is child-friendly, I’m usually asking if they have high-chairs. That’s all.

    We’ve been eating out with 3 year-old DS since he was a baby. The one thing I’ve learned is to order everything, and pay, early in the dining experience, so that if we need to make a quick getaway, we can.

    Pay early so you can scoot if needed. Oh, now that’s a smart suggestion! My own suggestion would be that since “child-friendly” can mean so many different things to different people, if you want to know about high chairs, you ask the question directly. Otherwise, you might an uncertain response, when really, had they understood what you meant, the answer would have been a clear ‘yes’.

    Comment by Jac | May 18, 2010 | Reply

  5. If I ask the question, is your restaurant child-friendly, what I mean is:

    – Do you have booster seats and high chairs?
    – Do you have plastic cups and plates and silverware a child can easily use?
    – Do you, perhaps, even have crayons and placemats to color on?
    – Am I going to get a dirty look for just bringing a child to your restaurant?
    – Do you have disposable bibs?
    – Is your staff going to be helpful or annoyed when my child spills his milk?
    – Do you have a diaper changing station in your bathroom?
    – If your service isn’t fast enough, am I going to get a dirty look for giving my child some crackers from my purse to tide him over?

    Maybe I’m too much of a new mom who makes poor assumptions, but some restaurants just seem to be kid-friendlier than others…when you mean kid-friendly in the sense I mean it in.

    That’s a comprehensive list, and goes a long way to answer my question! But since even me, kid wrangler from way back, wasn’t sure what ‘child-friendly’ was supposed to mean, I’d suggest that if you have a specific question — or a bunch of them — you’re probably better off asking them directly. Using a term as non-specific as ‘child-friendly’ is liable to get an unclear answer, or the wrong one entirely. (The diaper-changing station is a particularly good question. If you have a child in diapers, it’s good to know where you’ll be able to clean him/her up! High chairs are similarly important.)

    Though it’s nice when they do, I don’t expect restaurants to provide bibs or crayons. I bring my own. If I’ve forgotten, we’ll either use a napkin tucked into his/her shirt, or go without, and I always have a pen and a scrap of paper in my purse.

    Dirty looks for normal things like spilling milk or crackers as appetizers? If you get them for those things (unless the milk was spilled because the child was being rowdy instead of just uncoordinated), then the starers are being rude and should best be ignored. But be sure to them them graciously, with a warm smile, for providing napkins for the spill! It’s highly satisfying to be super-polite to rude people — out-class them like hell, is my motto. It makes you feel so good. 🙂

    As for the dirty looks you sometimes get just walking in? You know what? I’m sort of in sympathy with them, because I’ve had unruly children ruin my own outings often enough. Furthermore, I’m often entering the place with not one or two, but FIVE toddlers in tow. Who wouldn’t be alarmed?

    I tend to view the looks of horror as a challenge. “You think we’re going to be awful, don’t you? Watch this!” And you know what? A small but encouragingly steady percentage of the time, someone will actually come over and tell me how impressed they are by these well-behaved the children. A larger percentage, we are soon getting smiles instead of frowns. And that’s reward enough for my hard work.

    Comment by Ang | May 18, 2010 | Reply

  6. I suspect you know by now that I’m in agreement.

    I do want to know things like whether they will have a high chair and if meals will take so long to arrive that it is not reasonable to expect kids to wait that long sitting nicely and then sit through dinner nicely – mine will sit well for a regular length dinner, but restaurants intent on creating experience, romance, atmosphere, or haute cuisine sometimes go for a much slower, more leisurely pace of service than we can handle. Those things, I will be concerned about checking on if I suspect it might not be a good fit.

    I also back out of places that are too loud and pub-like enough in atmosphere or conversely, so romantic or food-temple-ish that even reasonable kid talking levels (not shouting, but talking) would be frowned upon.

    Basically, I’ll avoid a place I think won’t be a good fit not because I think my children should be able to run rampant – my children sit until everyone is finished, always – but because I don’t want to ruin someone else’s night out. (God knows I know how precious those can be!)

    Aside from those kind of considerations of fit, my children need to sit, talk reasonably, and eat as much as they will or will not (if not, that’s their choice, but they still have to sit while we eat) from what we’ve chosen with an eye to feeding both them and us.

    If it’s not the kind of restaurant that would have crayons, I bring some small crayons or other activities to keep them busy, as well as a few arrowroots to tide them over while waiting, and things like bib and sippy for The Bun. I find being prepared helps immensely when you’re heading out with kids.

    I’ve never had them go so far as to be forced to leave entirely by virtue of behaving like wild animals, though there have been occasions when Mrpie has taken a toddler or baby outside for a small walk while we wait so that they can get their crazies out without disturbing the whole place. But would I? Oh hell, yes.

    Comment by kittenpie | May 18, 2010 | Reply

  7. We have taken our son to restaurants his whole life. We do pick places that we know are more child friendly – kid menu, decent sizes and general family feel. We have always required my son to be polite – except when he’s acting shy (which is happening more and more) we insist he order for himself and say please and thank you (sometimes prompted). Basically we get him to act the same way we act. I wouldn’t take him to somewhere fancy but that’s more because I don’t think the menu would be suited to him as opposed to his behaviour. He picked the Keg for his sixth birthday and ate his little steak with no problems so we feel we did something right.
    I see people in restaurants who feel that because their child is a child they have a right to be invasive of the space of others – air space, noise space, physical space. No. They don’t have that right. Yes, sometimes kids are louder but if they can’t behave or if they can’t chill out then they need to go elsewhere. I have so much empathy for people who want to get out but make sure you do the ground work – make your child someone you’d like to eat with and eating out with them will be so much better.
    We’ve also taken our child to concerts, movies, skateboard parks and other places. Anywhere we need to go, he goes. But we’ve done that from the start and the few times he’s acted up, we’ve removed him from the situation – warned him and then removed him. We don’t just threaten – we do. He knows it, we know it and so we don’t need to use it.

    Comment by HG | May 18, 2010 | Reply

  8. VERY YES.

    A good friend of mine has a 13 year old and a 14 year old. She’s an amazing mother, and has a very close relationship with her children. Her teenage girl actually cares about how her mother’s day went, and keeps her company while she makes dinner.

    But this is not a lenient mother. She always expected her kids to behave. One day, recently, a two year old girl was running around wildly, shrieking with delight, in a White Spot and my friend nodded at the kid and told me “If your child ever does that, I’m going to smack you upside the head.”

    She told me about one time when her father was sitting her children for a weekend. They were two and three and a half. He took them to his favourite restaurant – a VERY classy joint. The kind where the men have to wear ties and there are at least three forks. When he arrived with the two tots, the maitre’d was very concerned.
    “Sir, this is not a family restaurant. Perhaps your grandchildren would be more comfortable at the Denny’s down the road…”

    But he insisted on being seated with the children. So with great misgivings and many dirty looks, they seated the family.

    By the end of the meal, the OWNER of the restaurant came out to congratulate the grandfather. He had been hearing amazed comments from his wait staff about these kids – they sat down the whole meal, they talked with inside voices, they used their napkins, they said “please” and “thank you”… The entire staff was totally charmed. And relieved.

    “Your children,” the owner told them earnestly, “are welcome here any time.”

    Comment by ifbyyes | May 19, 2010 | Reply

  9. I loved this! When our eldest was just 2, we wanted to go out to celebrate our anniversary. I selected a beautiful Italian restuarant and called to confirm that they could accomodate a 2 year old (looking for a high chair or booster. They assured me they could.

    When we arrived, they sat her on a pile of clean table cloths on top of her chair to boost her up. She enjoyed her spagetti, and when she was finished, the waiter picked her up and took her for a ‘tour’ of the restaurant and kitchen, and we had a few minutes to enjoy the ambiance, just the two of us.

    I have never forgotten how well we were treated, and how my daughter was made to feel like a princess.

    We have always enjoyed eating out with our children in nice restaurants, and they loved it and responded with excellent behaviour. I think if they know what is expected, they can rise to the occasion.

    Now if we went to McDonalds, I might have one of them trying to lie down on the bench. They seem to intuit that standards there were different (not MY standards, but society’s standards).

    Comment by Diane | May 19, 2010 | Reply

  10. So right, this. My children are restaurant-friendly and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s all about the expectations again. If you expect a child to be able to behave properly, they have a chance to actually do so.

    I was in a restaurant with my children today, and we were with a woman and her kids and boy did she have different standards. There was shouting and whining and running around. Actually, the mother shouted too. I thought of you and this post – a lot. I refused to let my children join in, though. That was just NOT going to happen.

    The one thing that bugs me about some restaurants is that they will bring the child’s dish in a plate straight from the oven. That is the one concession I think they could make. I always ask for a different – colder – plate to transfer the food to. That just seems like common sense to me.

    Comment by Mwa | May 19, 2010 | Reply

  11. I like kids menus. But only some kids menus. High fat, boxed mac & cheese, small portion kids menus do not work for me. I like more family friendly restaurants. To be honest, the best one I’ve come across is Swiss Chalet. Yes, it’s a chain. But the kids menu includes full portions of real food (chicken! corn! veggies!) which works for my kids. And while I always bring my own crayons, it’s nice that they also supply them. And I like that there is often other families there too. (And the breastfeeding friendly sticker doesn’t hurt, either!)

    That being said, I do take my children to restaurants (although now that there are 3, it’s not as often!). I never let them wander alone (although we’ve been known to take the long way together to the bathroom!). And I certainly don’t stand for poor behaviour.

    I often take my middle son (3.5) to the grocery store with me, and he tends to be a bit loud – but not offensively so (Oh! look mummy! carrots!) – he chats about what he sees and talks to people. Usually we get smiles.

    My worst experience was at a small restaurant where I was with just my husband. There was one other family there. The kids ran around and kept bugging us, and I was SO ANNOYED – it was our only kid free time, and it was being ruined!! I completely feel for people who don’t like having kids in restaurants, some kids spoil it for the rest of them!

    Comment by Naomi | May 20, 2010 | Reply

  12. I have been a nanny for the last 9 years. I’ve helped raise 14 kiddos in the amount of time. To you, I say…you are a child-rearing GENIUS and I LOVE LOVE LOVE reading about your experiences on the diaper front. 🙂 Thank you for those uplifting, OMG THATS SO MY KID!, pull your hair out, laugh your butt off moments that you choose to share!

    Wow. Thank you! Your enthusiasm made me laugh out loud — thanks for the uplifting comment. 🙂

    Comment by becomingme2010 | May 25, 2010 | Reply

  13. Agreed upon.

    Comment by Double Strollers | July 22, 2010 | Reply

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