Thursday, October 10, 2013

Restaurants and the 'Can't They Control Their Kids?' Syndrome

Not long ago I dined in a restaurant with my wife. I was about to write "...a fancy restaurant..." in that sentence, but I stopped myself. You see, to us, any eatery where you don't have to order your food from a counter or a window and/or don't have to get the food yourself is a fancy restaurant.

So, although it was fancy to us, this place would probably be classed by others as ... let's see ... an affordable restaurant. That's probably a good way to put it. A local place that's not part of some big chain. Reasonably popular.

I find it impossible to completely ignore other diners in a restaurant setting. I try to be circumspect about my people watching. But on this occasion my wife eventually noticed that I had been paying attention to family with several young children seated nearby.

My Lovely Wife: "What are you looking at?"

Me: (in a tone of disbelief) "Their kids."

MLW: "What about them?"

Me: (amazed) "They're, uh, remarkably well mannered. I mean, they're being pretty calm. They're actually eating the food and they even seem to be enjoying it. Nobody's pestering anyone else."

My wife immediately understood. Each of our five children is a remarkable individual and we love each one dearly. But to be frank, our family never experienced a restaurant scene the likes of which I was seeing when our kids were the ages of those kids.

Let's start with the food. You might think that most restaurants offer sufficient menu choices that every member of our family could find something they would enjoy eating. If so, you'd be wrong.

Between my special diet (yes, I'm part of the problem), one child's coconut allergy, the stubbornness of our Asperger's child, the relatively narrow palates of two children, and the extreme pickiness of another (by my calculation, this child is two standard deviations pickier than the aforementioned two), family dining tends to be traumatic, whether we're at home or out in public.

Consequently—and owing to the fact that, given our budget, taking the whole family out to eat runs into real money even at "affordable" restaurants—we don't often take the whole family out to eat. So maybe we just don't have enough practice dining out as a family.

Both my wife and I have studied plenty over the years (and have been given much advice by well meaning relatives and friends) about how to get our children to expand their palates. But I guess we're defective parents when it comes to kids and food, because we can't ever make it work in our family. We cringe every time we are admonished to have more family meals. To us, this advice sounds like someone saying, "Let the food wars begin."

But food attitudes are only part of the problem. I sat in the restaurant that day marveling at how a half an hour passed without any child screaming or bawling. No poking or hitting. No nasty insults or thoughtless observations about a sibling's behavior. Nobody taking this or that that doesn't belong to them. Or shoving something they don't want into someone else's space. Or flipping pieces of food at someone else. Or.... Well, you get the idea. Just good natured eating and conversing. To me this seemed exceptional.

Heck, if our family was more like that, we'd probably take our clan out to eat more often. I suppose having a lot more money would have to be part of the mix too.

In the restaurant that day I started to wonder if perhaps the young family I was watching was more normal, while our family was exceptional. Or maybe there should be a word like 'inexceptional' that is to 'exception' what 'infamous' is to 'famous.' That is, exceptional in a not-so-good way.

Fortunately, I soon heard a child screaming from around the corner. I couldn't see the family whose child was making such a fuss. Maybe our family wasn't so abnormal after all. The wailing child reminded me of what other restaurant patrons experience when they happen to be stuck dining near our family. Even if they don't say it out loud, they're thinking, "Can't those people control their children?!" They're just glad when we leave. Unless they leave first, having been driven out early by our family's behavior.

A buffet pizza place opened in our town last year. It's a very popular establishment. We can take our whole family there and everyone can find something to eat. (Even relatively healthy salads.) No need to worry about making selections from the menu. No need to worry about getting something a child doesn't end up liking. They can just get up and go find something else. All of the kids are now old enough to find whatever they want to eat without help from somebody older.

Of course, this place doesn't fall under fancy restaurant in our lexicon, because you still have to fetch your own food. If you go to one of these places with your family, you will want to sit at a table rather than in a booth. When you're in a booth, people are constantly needing to slide in and out from the bench. A table works better for the 'jump up and get more food' style of dining.

Now if we could only do something about the poking, hitting, kicking, insulting, blowing air on others through straws, chucking food, flipping boogers ....

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