Why I Take My Toddler To Restaurants

“Habba da inna diggal ea CAR!” my 18-month-old son, Nate, yells at the window.  On the other side of the glass, another car pulls into the diner parking lot.  Nate leans in his booster seat to put his hand on the aluminum window frame.  “BEEP BEEP car!”

“Shhh,” I tell him, putting a finger to my lips.  “Use your inside voice.”

Nate grins at me, and puts his hand to his own lips.  “Ssssss,” he says, imitating me in a stage whisper.  “Oh da ganna sssss habadda.  Ssssss.”  That works for a few minutes more, though, before he starts yelling again — not crying, but exuberant, joyful, full-voiced toddler yelling.  I switch tactics, going for our Bag of Tricks, to find some toy or snack to distract him until our food (or check) arrives.

This is not an uncommon scene for me and my family.  We eat out, with toddler in tow, about once a week on average.  And while I and my wife are careful not to let our son prevent other patrons from enjoying their meals, we are aware that a toddler is certainly louder and more distracting fellow-patron than, say, your typical middle-aged woman, or your typical elderly man.

We aren’t going to let that stop us from taking him out.  In fact, I think it’s vital that we regularly expose him to restaurant environments from an early age.

How else will he learn how to behave in a restaurant?

Earlier this week, a woman’s review of a Maine diner went viral.  She claims that the diner’s owner screamed in the face of her 21-month-old, a reaction (she says) was disproportionate to the amount of disruption her daughter was creating.  The diner’s owner fired back, claiming that the parents let their daughter cry for 40 minutes, and castigating the parents for… ordering pancakes for their toddler?  I was a little confused by that part.

Diner1 Diner2

The mother’s op-ed

The issue is very much a your-word-vs.-mine scenario.  Without having been there, I’m not sure who was at fault, or what the toddler was really doing.

What I can address, however, is the comment sections on these news stories.  “KEEP YOUR KIDS AT HOME!”  “The Parents shouldn’t expect others to be okay with their brat.”  “I have the right to eat my meal without having to hear your child.”  “Parents need to teach their kids how to behave in restaurants, and if they can’t behave, don’t go out!”

Here’s the thing, folks: If the solution is for me to never take my kid to restaurants, then years from now, whenever I finally do take him to one, he won’t know how to behave there.

If you want to teach your dog to leave the cat alone, the last thing you want to do is lock the dog away from cats and never let it see one.  No, you expose the dog and the cat to each other while under supervision, maybe through a gate or fence, until it is no longer a new situation, and until the dog knows what is expected of it.  Kids, I hate to say, are not much different.

So if you want me to “teach [my] kid how to behave in restaurants,” I’m going to have to bring him to restaurants.  I’m going to have to hush him when he gets loud, and show him how to keep the food on his plate, and reprimand him when he does something inappropriate, until he knows what is acceptable restaurant behavior.

Yes, if he throws a fuss and won’t stop, which he occasionally does, I will remove him, and have my food boxed — but realize that this still means that you, my fellow-patron, will hear my kid fussing for a minute or two.  I’m sorry for that, but quarantining me and my kid will only prolong the problem.

(And keep in mind, when I say “restaurant,” I mean a diner, an IHOP, or a Panera.  These are not establishments known for their quiet, classy, baby-free atmosphere.  I am resigned to the fact that for the next decade, I will not be getting into any classy eateries without the aid of a babysitter, and I’m fine with that.)

So, I will continue bringing my toddler to restaurants, because one day, when I tell him to hush and use his inside voice, he will be able to do so for the entire meal.