Taking baby out to dinner in a hostile world

Taking baby out to dinner in a hostile world

As the parents of one small child, we’re still working out the kinks in our parenting style. One of the touchy aspects is bringing a small child into public, specifically restaurants.

Oh boy, do we ever see blogs and columns and articles berating parents for having the temerity to bring a small child into a public place where she might giggle and thus disturb the carefully arranged personality disorders of other diners. But what’s a parent to do? Is our society so hostile toward children that parents must hide away until their children are old enough to act arrogant and surly like the adult patrons?

We’re not talking about letting our child run riot through the restaurant like a drug-addled Hollywood semi-starlet.

Yes, yes, we should hire a babysitter. I’ll do that right after after I pick some cash from the money tree. Eating out is expensive enough without having to hire domestic help like I’m a Democratic presidential candidate. Of course, in a very fortuitous arrangement, the aforementioned money tree is planted right next to the babysitter tree, which is handy because we don’t know a single babysitting teenager or college student otherwise.

Now, we don’t go to fine dining establishments with her. The last nice restaurant we went to was Cilantro in Salem several months ago, which we could do because Melanie’s dad was visiting and offered to babysit. Otherwise, we try to go to “family-friendly” restaurants (i.e. noisy, garish, and cheap) at off-hours (i.e. before the dinner rush); places that are usually so loud you couldn’t possibly hear our children make noise; places that more often than not serve food on trays. If you have to be your own waiter and busboy, customers have no right to expect a fine-dining experience.

Of course, we’re not talking about letting our child run riot through the restaurant like a drug-addled Hollywood semi-starlet. We don’t let her run around, we take her outside if she starts crying, and we make sure to clean up any mess she spills on the floor. I don’t think Lindsay Lohan’s handlers do even as much.

Is there a happy medium? Can we make a pact with the dining public? If we promise not to ignore our child’s unacceptable behavior, can the rest of the world not look at her like Hellspawn, sigh loudly at our entrance to the dining room, or roll their eyes at the slightest peep from her?

And I’ll throw in my promise not to comment on their overloud and “too-much-information” cell phone conversations. Deal?

  • I’m still single for 7 more days, and no kids either, but my favorite restuarant, Pasta Vino, is CRAWLING with tots every time I go.  Its the best italian food in Atlanta (no high bar) but all my Milanese and Umbrian friends like it, so it isn’t all bad.  I kind of like the fact that I can have such high caliber food in a restuarant where I am likely to have a strange kid hide under our table for the hide and seek game that’s going on throughout the dining room.

    But I will NEVER stop listening in and offering comments regarding others’ cell conversations.  My favorite is when I provoke them into asking for “privacy”.  I direct them to the restroom, or just point out that they must be confused, this is “public”.

  • Orrr,  Melanie could just nurse Isabella at the restaurant, then everyone could throw down their civility gloves and have a good ol’ brawl about whose rights are righter than everyone else’s rights.

  • Welcome to the club, Dom.

    Now imagine bringing 6 children to a fine dining establishment… Admittedly, it’s not something we do very often (once a year, tops). We’re not made of money, either (to pay the sitter(s) or the restaurant…)

    But there is a certain perverse joy to be had in seeing the horror on some of the other patron’s faces grin

  • There’s another issue that’s rarely discussed: the boundary line between fine dining and more casual dining establishments is much more blurred than it was, say 35 years ago. It used to be that fine dining establishments were often marked by dress code – coats and/or ties for gentlemen, hose and dresses/smart pantsuits for women, et cet. Children were only taken to these establishments when they were ready to (1) eat the food without complaint (no children’s menus, and rarely any adjustments to the menu to begin with), and (2) behave quietly and respectfully at the table. Families with children who were not so ready went to more casual establishments (though the ranges of children’s behaviors not as extreme as one may find today).

    The older system was more rigid, but its social expectations were also clearer. Now, things are more flexible, but the social expectations haven’t so much adjusted but gotten cross-wired, as it were. Perhaps the only remaining marker of the former divide is the absence or presence of a children’s menu.

    What’s also interesting to me is that, while certain types of special needs children formerly common (Downs, retardation, palsy, polio, et cet.) are very rare to be seen today, other behaviorial syndromes (hyperactivity, Aspbergers/audism) to be more common.

    Another interesting contrast: people in close spaces (like restaurants) feel entitled to communicate their displeasure with the behavior of the children of other people, but in open spaces (like on the street in the neighborhood) do not feel so entitled. Whereas it was formerly reversed: in fact, moms in the ‘hood implicitly deputised each other to apply reasonable correction to each other’s children – followed up with communication with their parents after-the-fact if need be (as a kid, that was always dreadful, because it meant 2 punishments rather than 1!) – which would be unheard of nowadays.

  • This makes me extre-e-e-emely sad. I’m so sorry. Maybe people in the Midwest are just nicer, or maybe I’m just blind to what goes on around me when we go to restaurants (which is more than possible) because I really don’t ever think of this.

    I’m with you on the money tree that’s needed to afford to both pay the sitter AND go out. And forget about adding a movie to the evening.

  • I have to echo Karen’s comment. Out here is Ohio, I have not really observed the eye rolling and sighs of despair when young families arrive.

    Then again, we have three children (4, 2 and 9 mo), so we don’t eat out much.  But when we do it is usually a local “Mom and Pop” type place. We must subconsciously find places we suspect we won’t be on the business end of dagger eyes.

    BTW, “and thus disturb the carefully arranged personality disorders of other diners” is a classic observation!

  • Dom, Comfort for the future:  by the time your oldest child is 6 or 7, she will help with the other(s) when you bring the gang (God willing that there be a gang) out to eat.  And eventually you reach a point where critical mass is children over 6 or 7, and you are free to go out as often as your pocketbook will allow.  Not to mention once your oldest child has reached babysitting age.  When your oldest is not yet two, this all seems a long way down the pike, I know.  For now, five o’clock dinners and dessert at home are the only way to go.

    A couple of tips, if you haven’t already gotten them twenty times from friends:  bring crackers and a sippy cup.  When she likes them, bring crayons.  Ask for your bill mid-meal to ensure that it’s ready when you are.  Sounds like you are already doing the basic training in etiquette, toddler-style.  Getting up when there’s noise and doing things to quiet your child are not caving in to attention-getting behavior—they demonstrate to the child that you mean it when you say this is not acceptable behavior at the point when she can control her impulses better.  Then you get to say, “when you were little, we…  but now that you’re a big girl, we expect you to…”.

    Don’t worry about the dirty looks.  When we brought our children to restaurants, we always got them.  But eventually they went away, because the kids behaved reasonably well most of the time.  Now we don’t get them at all, because we only have one under ten and the others all look more grown up than they behave.  Your time, too, will come.

  • One thing my husband and I struggle with is this: how can we teach our children to behave in a restaurant if we never go to a restaurant out of fear of disturbing other diners?  We don’t actually enjoy taking our gang out to dinner much (4.5 yrs, 2.5 yrs and 11 months), but we decided to make an effort to take them out to some of the more family-friendly places in our town for the purpose of teching them how to behave when dining out.  No amount of “let’s pretend” at home can substitute for the real thing, I’m afraid.

  • Dom, we live down Rt.128 from you, but I have to say we never have had a problem with “the look” from other diners.  It might be because we don’t go to very tony places—but we do go to places that don’t really cater to kids, sometimes.  Many of the ethnic places (not only Asian, but Argentine, Spanish, etc.) love to see kids and will try to adapt something to my daughter’s taste (she’s 5).  And we did bring crackers, juice, and so forth when she was younger and made sure we got the bill promptly. So just go!

  • Cathy, we do go out to restaurants. I’m not saying we encounter “the look” all that often, but then we try to avoid anyplace too hoity-toity. Like you, we’ve found the ethnic places to be the most kid-friendly.

    And yes we feel free to bring food that she will eat. But we also make sure that she tries whatever we’re eating. So far she’s happily eaten Vietnamese pho and Tex-Mex salsa and a number of other unusual foods quite happily.

    The main reason I wrote this post was not because of anything in particular we’ve experienced (yet) because we’re so careful, but because of what I’ve read in articles and other blogs. It may be that because we live in the burbs and not in the city, our experience is somewhat different as are the general expectations.

  • A few random thoughts…

    (1) Certain ethnic restaurants (real ethnic, not fake imitation) are MUCH BETTER with lots of kids running around: Chinese, Vietnamese, Italian, Mexican.

    (2) Upper class (e.g., real cloth on tables, male waiters, nothing on wine list to $500/bottle) places are probably less welcoming.  Few people want to spend $500 for a quiet dinner for two with a kid running by the table, or crying for macaroni instead of pate.

    (3) If you take your daughter to a restaurant (a real sit down restaurant, not a plastic perch at a fast food place), take her to a good one.  Teach her the joy of good food, not the ambiguities of mediocre franchise places.  Better for a six year old to be able to order sushi with confidence, than to know mediocre fare at Denny’s.

  • I definitely agree about the ethnic places. We’ve had great luck with taking her for sushi, our waitress flirted with her and Bella loved the udon and for Vietnamese, the waitress there remembers her and is thrilled that she eats the pho. Many of the places are a sort of in-between, they have table cloths and wine lists but don’t cost an arm and a leg.

    One question this whole discussion raises for me: Am I wrong in thinking that any restaurant which has high chairs on hand must at least not be kid-unfriendly or do even the really high-end, snooty places have them just in case?

  • I am one of six and my parents ate out EVERY Friday night when we were young and we were usually left home with a babysitter.  We joined them at a restaurant about once a month, more often in the summer.  All six of us.  I can’t say it was “fine dining” but there were waiters and cloth napkins.  And we knew how to behave, although I can recall a four year old sister ordering lobster for herself outside of my father’s earshot –  which initiated a new rule, no expensive dishes without prior permission.  On the vast majority of these dinners an elderly couple would stop by on their way out and congratulate my parents for having such well-behaved children.  In my adulthood I now eat out about 3-4 times a week and have never been motiviated to pay any family a similar compliment.  I wish that were not the case, because I well remember my parents’ pride on those nights and it would be nice to pass that gift on to the next generation of deserving parents.  If only I could find them.

  • One of my pet peeves when taking my crew out to eat is being taken into an almost empty dining room (we too aim for off hours) and being seated right next to the only other occupied table—or if we request one a bit away from the other diners, having the next people who enter seated right next to us.  I realize it is easier for the help if the customers are close together but does it take a rocket scientist to figure out that a family with a toddler probably isn’t looking for a long leisurely meal, and that the senior citizens who just came in probably would be happier seated a bit away from the toddler?