This weekend, my extended family went to North Conway. It was a big group of us out to dinner after a day at Echo Lake – a total of 8 young kids and 8 adults. Admittedly it was a large group, but we were eating at a very casual restaurant right outside of Story Land, and we went out to eat at 5:30.
This was the kind of place with crayons on the table and a well-worn kids menu. This was a restaurant where families with small children are the norm; it was not a steakhouse in Manhattan.
Our kids ranged in age from 5 months to a pre-teen, with most of the kids being pre-school aged and toddlers.
Everyone who has ever taken kids out to dinner knows how hard that can be. There have been nights where Brian and I have literally called for the check before our appetizers even come out, because we know we are doomed and just need to make an escape before we ruin anyone’s dinner.
We are not those people who have no clue if their kids are being wild and who don’t care if we are bothering other patrons. We care! We try our best.
But this weekend our kids, the whole collective of them, were behaving remarkably well. They were coloring and chatting and not running around like lunatics. There was some getting up and out of seats to show Papa a nice drawing, or to ask for some dessert, or other assorted expected mini disruptions of this nature. They are small kids! But they were behaving themselves and we were all enjoying a nice family meal.
Nobody was yelling, nobody was crying, nobody was throwing food or running around.
In short, we were proud of the kids and happy with the night.
An older couple sitting across from us was…..not.
The entire meal they were glaring at us, at our kids, at each other – making it abundantly clear that they did not welcome sitting near us.
At one point my 5 month old baby spit-up over my shoulder, but as she’s an infant this wasn’t exactly a “behavior problem” so much as it was “reflux”. And yet this couple gave me the most disdainful look, as if my baby had done something terrible and we were bad parents. It was very uncomfortable (as is being puked on by a baby, but it’s a different type of discomfort).
When we got up to leave at the end of the meal – which, again, was at a restaurant that caters to small kids, outside of a theme park for families, at 5:30 PM – the couple clapped and cheered as we walked out.
Yes, they cheered us and our young kids out of the restaurant.
This is what I would like to tell the couple in the restaurant:
Our children are little.
Small children can be hard to manage; they are certainly hard to travel with and yes they can be a handful out to dinner. But they are little people who are learning about the world; how to engage with it, how to master social situations, how to handle themselves. They need practice at this.
They need adults to work with them and show patience and compassion towards them. And ideally they need not just their own parents to do this, but other adults to do this as well.
This is how we raise kids up. We try to model good behavior as best we can. And we work with them as they develop their own sense of self and sense of others.
I don’t think that parents should let children run wild through public spaces, ruining experiences for others. We need to help them until they have the self-regulation not to act up.
But the only bad behavior I saw the other night came not from a table of pre-schoolers and toddlers, but from grown adults.
I just read a Toni Morrison quote that stuck with me. Toni explained that it’s fascinating to see what happens when a child walks into a room. She asked “Does your face light up?”
We adults give kids messages all the time about what we think of them, and of their value.
Cheering when parents with young kids leave a restaurant – parents who are trying and kids who are doing their best to learn about their world – is that a compassionate message to send?
Does your face light up?
Imagine if we could all remember that when we’re with not just our own kids, but with anybody’s kids.
Imagine what that would relay to the little ones around us.
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