Child Behavior in Adult Company

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Taken from Growing Concerns -- A childrearing question-and-answer column with Dr. Martha Erickson

Question: Once a week we meet my in-laws for dinner at a nice restaurant near their apartment. They always want us to bring our kids, who are 2 and 4, but the kids seem to fall apart midway through the meal, spilling (or even throwing) food on the floor, squabbling with each other and crying to go home. How can we help the kids learn more civilized behavior in adult company?

Answer: You're discovering how difficult it is for young children to enjoy--or even tolerate--long dinners and adult conversation. And it sounds like these dinners have become a miserable experience for everyone involved. You say this is a "nice" restaurant; does that mean not a child-friendly one? If so, until the children are a little older, you all may have a better time if you choose a restaurant that caters to the tastes of young guests. For example, a child-friendly restaurant offers child favorites on the menu, often provides activities to entertain children while they wait for their food and tolerates the noise and mess that are a natural part of early childhood. Another child-friendly option--and a fun change of pace--would be a picnic in the park. Or maybe once a month, you might want to leave the children with a babysitter to allow time for uninterrupted adult conversation and gourmet food.

For those times when you take the children to a restaurant, here are some steps to make mealtime more enjoyable:

- Take a small bag of items to entertain the children. Crayons and paper, nontoxic modeling clay, a puzzle, or small building toys that fit on a highchair tray might be fun. (Making one of the items a surprise is a good idea.)

- Since young children have a hard time waiting for food--especially when they see it on the next table--bring along (or ask the waiter for) some crackers, carrot sticks or a favorite beverage to satisfy the children while they wait for their order.

- To avoid squabbles between the two children, seat them at opposite ends of the table.

- Talk with the grandparents ahead of time and arrange for all of the adults to take turns helping to entertain the children. Maybe each time you eat out together one adult could be designated as the "table buddy" for each child. It's natural for young children to want lots of attention. When they feel left out of adult conversation, they usually find a way to take center stage.

- Before going to the restaurant, be very clear and simple in telling the children what you expect. For example, you might have three basic rules.

1. Keep food on the table.

2. Use "inside voices"

3. Be nice to each other. (Note that these are all positive statements of what you want the children to do, rather than statements about what they are NOT allowed to do.) Even these simple rules may be more than a 2-year-old can handle but, with clear expectations and consistent gentle guidance, your 4-year-old probably is mature enough to begin developing good restaurant manners.

- Finally, throughout your time in the restaurant, look for opportunities to "catch the children being good." When they get attention for good behavior, they have less need to demand attention in negative ways.

The Children, Youth and Family Consortium invites your questions on child rearing for possible inclusion in this column. E-mail to mferick@tc.umn.edu or write to Growing Concerns, University of Minnesota News Service, 3 Morrill Hall, 100 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55455.
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