Teaching Manners in a Restaurant

We’ve all been there; either glaring at the table of rambunctious kids in a restaurant or fielding the glares as the parents of the accused. Children don’t inherently learn the nuances of dining in a public place so it’s up to the adults in their lives to teach them the best way to behave in a restaurant. Many parents don’t know where to start and don’t offer enough guidance, while others attempt to create statues out of their children and harp on every infraction. There is a balance that allows you to help your child behave, but also enjoy the dining out experience.

The skills your children learn by dining in a restaurant include patience, confidence, and self-control. You, as your child’s teacher, must help foster these skills through clear expectations and consequences. Try these tips for a more enjoyable restaurant experience.

Start young

Many parents believe waiting to bring children out to eat until they are older and a bit more mature is the right move, but exposing them to new dining experiences when they are young helps them incorporate necessary skills into their repertoire from the start. The expectations of restaurant behavior become the norm.

Be explicit

Have no more than three rules for young children. If you nitpick every detail of their behavior, your children will fail and you will be frustrated. Eating in a restaurant is a social experience and your children should be able to engage with your family without fear of being reprimanded at every turn.

Try these three important rules for young diners:

1. Ask Mom or Dad if you want to get out of your chair, which prohibits kids from jumping out of their seats and into waitresses carrying hot dishes. It’s important to note that many children under 5 have a hard time sitting through an hour and a half meal, so taking a short walk outside after dinner is ordered may be just the break he needs to make it through the meal successfully!

2. Order your own meal, which encourages children to participate in the dining experience and sends the message they are mature and expected to act that way.

3. Use a restaurant voice, which is between a library voice (a whisper) and a playground voice (a yell) and gives children a clear understanding of the acceptable volume.

Ditch the video games!

Using video games to entertain children in a restaurant is a crutch and is not teaching them the skills they need to engage in an acceptable manner. Going out to dinner should be a time to connect with your family and to talk about the day’s events, not sit together at a table and ignore each other. Engage your child in an iSpy game or a simple “thumbs up” game. Everyone gets a turn to pose a question (Is purple your favorite color?) and put your thumb up if it’s true for you. It’s a great way to get to know each other’s likes and dislikes.

Be prepared to leave

I was once in a restaurant and saw two parents quietly stand up and leave, followed by kids yelling “Wait! We’ll behave! Can we stay?” I can only assume the parents gave a warning to act appropriately and when that warning was not heeded, the consequence was given. This strategy really drives home the importance of appropriate behavior in a public place.

Bring an index card with three boxes drawn on it. If your child jumps out of his chair without asking, give him a warning. If he does it again, he gets a strike in the box. Three strikes and you’re out! That means no questions asked, you get up and leave. This requires clear directions from you as a parent, timely follow through, and coordination between parents. One may have to stay and pay the bill while the other shuttles the kids outside. Give your child an opportunity to try again in the next few days so he has an opportunity to correct his behavior.

Praise good behavior

Be sure to compliment your children when they say please and thank you, when they order in a clear voice, and when they stay in their seats. When you finish your meal, tell your child how much you enjoyed dining with them so they understand appropriate behavior correlates to a fun night out.