A trip to a restaurant can be fun family outing — not to mention a welcome break from making meals at home. But it's not always easy to get children to behave appropriately at restaurants. "My son will behave perfectly at McDonald's or any fast food restaurant because he knows he has to eat first before he can go play in the playroom, but when it comes to actual restaurants where you sit and order then wait for the food, he is a mess. I can't control him at all," admits Circle of Moms member Vanessa M. "My mother would have taken me to the bathroom and given me a good spanking. I honestly don't want to be that kind of parent," she adds.
For tips on teaching young children table manners and restaurant etiquette, Circle of Moms members offer the following seven tips.
1. Set Realistic Expectations
When teaching your child appropriate restaurant manners, it's important not to set your child up for failure, Circle of Moms members say. In other words, set realistic expectations about how long your child can sit quietly at a restaurant.
For example, Cassie C. says, "It's completely unfair to take a young child (under the age of 3 or 4) to a restaurant and expect them to behave or be perfect." She rarely goes to restaurants herself because her girls, a 2-year-old and a 4-month-old, struggle to make it through a meal. "It's unfair to them for my husband and I to get frustrated with them for behaving as a baby and toddler would," Cassie continues. "Expecting them to go to a sit-down restaurant and behave like anything but a 2-year-old and a 4-month-old just sets them up to fail in other people's eyes. When they're actually old enough to understand dining etiquette, we will teach and guide them through how to eat out."
Mom Celeste C. agrees that especially around ages 2 to 4, there are just some things that are going to happen no matter what, because children at that age are pushing boundaries and testing their defiance. "I'd hate for someone to think I was a crappy parent because my child behaved in that way," she says.
2. Practice at Home
If your child is old enough to understand what to do in a restaurant, then several Circle of Moms members suggest you practice at home first. "Start with how you teach them to behave at meals at home," Ange P. suggests. "Teach them to sit at the table with you, to try at least one bite of each part of their meal; don't let them kick up a tantrum when they don't like something. Teach them that even if they don't want to eat it, they can still sit with you and talk about what they did today, to ask politely for more of something they do like, etc. If they learn to do this at home, they won't be surprised when it's expected of them at a restaurant."
Kylie H. agrees: "It's a good idea to practice at home. Play make-believe at dinner time and pretend you are at a restaurant. Let the kids order from the menu and wait for their dinner. Let them know this is a special event and good behavior is what is expected."
3. Remind Kids Before Entering Restaurant
Once you child gets the hang of things at home, then take her out and remind her know that when she is out in public, she is expected to sit still and act like big kids. "My kids used to ask, 'This is a big people place right? We have to be quiet and sit and eat like big kids, but when we are at McDonald's we can run around and play and eat, right?'" Wendy D. recalls. "I say, 'Yes, that's great you remembered. Now let's go use our manners [to] eat and have a good time!'"
Wendy M. also suggests moms remind their little ones how they will be expected to behave (being relatively quiet, remaining in their seat, etc.) before getting to the restaurant. If they've been prepped beforehand, then a reprimand for acting out won't be a surprise, she explains. Then if your child handles herself well, you can reward and praise her for a job well done, she adds. "I believe it's OK to offer a reward for meeting expectations: a trip to the park, stickers, or perhaps even dessert!"
4. Start With Family-Friendly Restaurants
Family-friendly restaurants are the perfect place to test out restaurant table manners, mom Kelly says. "If I am at a place that caters to families, like Perkins or Denny's, then I expect to see kids learning how to behave. Now, if I go somewhere like High Cotton, where I pay $200 plus for dinner for two, I expect children to sit quietly, and if they do not do so, I expect their parents to remove them from the restaurant."
Similarly, Leah M. shares: "The one restaurant we love to go to with our kids is a fantastic Chinese buffet, so instead of making my 3-year-old sit still for an hour while we order, wait for food, eat, get dessert, wait for bill, etc., we can get up with her and let her pick her own food. Plus, it goes a lot faster when you cut out the [time to] look over menu, order, and wait for food."
5. Create Distractions
Family-friendly restaurants are also more likely to provide paper placemats with pictures for coloring and a few crayons to help entertain kids. Such distractions can help provide an interesting and new thing for a kid who doesn't get such at home during meals, thus helping to pass time until the food arrives," Ange P. says.
Moms Jennifer M. and Paula R. say they come prepared with distractions for their children to keep them occupied in case the restaurant doesn't have any. For instance, Paula R. says a book would suffice for her daughter, while for her son, she usually brings Lego or other small toys. "Sometimes his DS [handheld game] will work, but not always," she says. Jennifer M. also always brings snacks so her child doesn't have to wait when hungry, especially if the restaurant is slow in bringing out the food. Amanda also keeps her children occupied by talking about the decorations in the restaurant, and making sure her children notice there are other people trying to eat too.
Meanwhile, mom Kelly D. makes sure the restaurant itself has entertainment. For instance, when she eats out, she and her 3-year-old frequent a local sushi restaurant because her daughter can choose her own food and watch the chef prepare it.
6. Take a Break Outside
Of course, with children, not everything will go as planned. If your child has a meltdown during the meal, then don't be afraid or embarrassed to walk out. Mom Julie S. says she gives her child one warning to behave appropriately, and if her child won't listen, she'll take action: "Either my husband or I will take the offending child to the car and wait there for a few minutes. Then, we will ask them if they are ready to go back in and behave as they should. If they do, we go on with the meal. If not, then they have to stay in the car and miss out on the meal, dessert, playtime depending on where we're eating, etc., and watch as everyone else gets to enjoy. Unfortunately it's also a punishment for the parent whose turn it is to go out to the car, but we feel it's the sacrifice we need to make to teach our children."
As a former server, Sarah K. says, "I do like the suggestions of leaving if the child is not behaving. I've seen parents simply sit in the car with the problem child for a short period of time and then return, and this seems to work wonders, especially if the child knows you will leave with them again if necessary." This also avoids the possibility of your child creating a fall or trip hazard, if he is running around the restaurant and possibly getting in the server's way, she adds.
7. It's OK to Leave
Tina W. says if things really get out of hand, then she's not afraid to go home. "[If my daughter] starts throwing her food, I give her one warning, 'Gracie, if you throw one more piece, I will take away your food,' then I follow through. If she starts to throw a hissy fit, I ask for to-go baskets and we go home to eat." She adds that when at home, her daughter only gets a sandwich or something simple to eat, "because if you can't behave to eat nice in a restaurant, you don't get that food until the next day."
Finally, Felicia T. recommends parents watch their children for cues. "Just like us adults, if we are tired or sleepy, or hungry, our inhibitions [and] manners can go out the window. So just be in tune to your child. Just know what you and your child can handle at that point in time, make adjustments, and go from there."