Should Restaurants Refuse to Serve Your Kids?

Family_eating_a_meal_(5)

After a hectic week, Saturday is date night. The kids  bunked with the grandparents, the Blackberry is off, and it is time for an elegant, sit-down dinner with your significant other —  the first meal in a week where you actually sit down.

The ambiance of the café shatters with a familiar sound from a table across the room.  Three-year-old Zoey feels confined in her high chair and shrieks in that high-pitched whine only a toddler can produce, the one that sounds like the flying dinosaurs from the Johnny Quest theme.

Should Zoey be there on a Saturday night? Should her parents leave? Should the also-stressed-out parents who want an elegant night out — away from the kids — complain or even leave?

In Houston, Texas, La Fisheria recently banned children under age nine after 7 p.m. after complaints from couples such as the one described above caused the owner to rethink children dining at his place in the evenings.

Do you take your children out to dinner?

As an empty nester without grandchildren, I appreciate a child-free meal out.  I am certainly not thrilled when we plan an evening out only to have ear-piercing screams and prolonged whining from a nearby table. (To be fair to children, that could be anybody, young or old.)

However, and here’s the big however, I wonder how children will  learn appropriate public behavior if they are not out in public.

I often see signs in restaurants that say “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone,” I hope they don’t mean children.

I don’t support the bans. Kids are just that, kids, and sometimes stuff happens. Any parent knows that sometimes a tired child will act out in unprovoked ways for no reason. How does the parent respond?

While I prefer my meals quiet and without chaos, I’m willing to put up with some noise  in public places just as people put up with my child in public places.

There is a caveat in my thinking. Parents need to take responsibility for their children. If a child is screaming her head off,  isn’t there a reason?  Maybe not, but doesn’t the parent have a responsibility to take the child to a quieter place?

Twenty years later, my husband and I cringe when someone talks about the old Opryland theme park in Nashville, Tenn., the scene of our child’s greatest fit. Sometimes kids get upset and nothing will comfort them. Our child had a major mega-fit when a ride he favored ended; we left the theme park and drove home. After two hours of mother-comfort, he settled down 30 minutes before we arrived home.

The other day we had breakfast in a place that typically attracts young families. I was thinking about this exact issue — children behaving badly  in public — when I noticed a waitress approach a table with a mom, dad and four children. The waitress was ready to take the order.  The children behaved perfectly, while their father stood talking on his cell phone, making the waitress and his family wait on him. Ironic that I was seeking an example of bad behavior from a child, and the dad was being  rude to the waitress.

Anecdotal, but it goes right back to my point. Children are children, and parents can use public space as  a teachable moment. A pancake restaurant is a great place to start; I’m not so sure Morton’s Steakhouse is such a great place for a four-year-old. If parents make the choice to take Junior to a place with white linen tablecloths and a pricey menu, I  hope they have the discretion and maturity to remove the child if he is causing a huge distraction for other diners. I also hope they tip well.

Of course, for a screaming two-year-old, there isn’t such a thing as a teachable moment, and the child may need to be taken to a quiet place with plenty of comfort from mom or dad.

For a child in elementary school, going to a formal restaurant presents a great teaching tool for parents. He can learn which fork to use, how to read a menu and appropriately order different courses, how to interact with wait staff, appropriate table talk, and the right way to approach and leave a table.  We used to call these “manners.”  These experiences with dining will serve him well his entire life, no matter the situations he encounters.

There are so many other public spaces that are wonderful training grounds for children, such as the public library, church or synagogue, athletic fields, theaters, and yes, even the grocery store.  Who hasn’t been in the produce section when a child has gone ballistic? Seriously, most children behave well in public, and need a chance to learn about living in the world.

Amy McVay Abbott is an independent journalist from the Midwest, who focuses on health and rehabilitation issues.  She is also the author of two books, both available on Amazon.com, A Piece of Her Mind (2013) and The Luxury of Daydreams (2011).  These books are collections from her popular newspaper column, The Raven Lunatic.  Follow her on Twitter @ravenonhealth or visit her website at amyabbottwrites.

Image source Chris Spielmann, via Wikimedia Commons.

  • Richard Brown

    While I understand and sympathize with your opinion, I have no interest in my quiet dinner out with my spouse becoming someone’s teachable moment, especially when my credit card is going to be taking a big charge. If someone wants to go out to dinner, and must take their child, there are plenty of family-friendly restaurants to patronize. (The restaurant you cite allows small children up to 7:00, which I think is a reasonable policy.)

    My horror story occured when we went to Niagara Falls when my daughter was 2 years old and she threw her milk bottle and almost beaned a woman at the next table. It was extremely embarrassing and though we scolded her, I’m not sure that, at her age, the moment was especially teachable. In fact, we made it a point after that to not take her into an upscale restaurant until we were sure she could behave herself.

  • Kyra

    I agree with you. I have faced dirty looks and snears taking my young one to nice restaurants, but he has been taught from an early age what behavior is expected of him in such a place and is often far less rude than other adult patrons. I did start with casual restaurants and taking him to the fancier places between lunch and dinner, when there were very few other patrons. He liked feeling grown-up, ordering for us (when he was 2-3 we would split a plate from the adult menu) and quickly learned what was or was not appropriate.
    If my son was acting inappropriately I would fix the behavior or remove him from the room… but don’t give us dirty looks when he is behaving but the guy over at the next table is playing a video-with sound- on his phone for everyone to hear.

  • Dr Christine

    I grew up with parents who took us out to fine dining, a lot. They also traveled with us, took us to grown up parties, and fine theater. We learned early to behave, and knew punishment (with a spanking) would come if we didn’t. Intergenerational events happened all year long, and our parents’ friends and friends’ parents were extensions of our parents, including calling out bad behavior. Our country club and beach club had areas off limits to kids, and times when facilities were adults only. We just learned early, but I had a very formal growing up in school. We’d also never think of disrespecting teachers.

    I have met plenty of modern parents who have kids who behave very well everywhere, so it is just as much down to the parenting as it is to children. Toddlers throw fits because they are toddlers, and if you can’t reason with them then there are limits to where they should be welcome. Crying children aren’t behaving badly, but obnoxious children are. Most people know the difference when they see it out and about.

  • Restaurants are like country clubs. They ought to be able to impose dress codes and age restrictions if they choose as private entities. People can choose to patronize them or not.

    Several years ago, when one of my sisters was living in Las Vegas and had a newborn, we wanted to take her and her husband to dinner at our hotel (The Mirage). We learned that none of the Mirage restaurants allowed children under 6. But we really wanted them to experience the food at the Chinese restaurant, Moongate. We solved this by having the meal served to us in our room (brought up be Sigfried and Roy’s personal chef). My sister breastfed throughout, and it was a lovely meal. And he didn’t blink, but we couldn’t have done that downstairs.

    I think this is more an example of adults being increasingly unable to discern appropriate behavior in public. There has been in the last couple of decades an increasing sense of entitlement without responsibility–“if I can afford to buy the meal in that restaurant I’ll damn well take in anyone I want with me” sort of thing. Children should be learning manners at home, as well as appropriate judgment. Fine dining is something you graduate up to, like driving, and college, and marriage. There are, and might be, appropriate situations and venues for taking small children and infants to fine dining. Adults need to discern these ahead of time and not just demand of restaurants that they cater to them simply because they can afford the meal.

    Banning children from all restaurants? That would be a mistake. Having the ability to restrict them from some? I believe this is perfectly all right, and within the rights of the restaurant owners to do. Patrons can choose to support that action or not as is also their right.

  • Anne Born

    I agree. Kids have to go to church, or the library, or a nice restaurant to see how people behave in these quieter places so they can mimic the behavior of the people there. But my favorite balky kid in a restaurant story comes from when my son was about two years old. He started acting out so his dad picked him up in his arms and started to exit the restaurant. My son, looking nervous and scared all of a sudden started shouting, “Help! Help me, help me!” Everyone thought he was being abducted.

  • Marti Teitelbaum

    I’m with you on opposing bans on kids. If a child is misbehaving, the parents should be told that they need to take the child out just as if an adult is misbehaving, he/she can be asked to leave. But why refuse all children? I’ve seen some unpleasant behavior from adults and no one talks about banning them!
    We took our children to restaurants often. And we’ve had our share of times when we had to ask the waiter to pack up the rest of our food and leave because our baby or toddler was having a hard time and disturbing others. But because we’ve taken our children to many public places, they did learn to behave, and once they arrived at a basic age of reason (4 and up?), we rarely had problems in restaurants.

  • Jessica

    A cutoff point for servicing children seems like a fair compromise — that way patrons who don’t want to be disturbed can do so, but parents aren’t discriminated against. I get that kids are kids, but I wonder about the parenting skills of people who take toddlers out to dinner or shopping or the movies after 7 or 8 pm. Don’t children have bedtimes anymore? Maybe the reason they’re misbehaving is because they’re tired.

    If a child won’t behave, the parents should be considerate to the other patrons and take the him or her out of the restaurant or the store. That will also reinforce that tantrums are not acceptable behavior.

  • JK

    If you want to ‘train’ them then take them to Applebees. Not Morton’s. And if you don’t like their ‘ban’ then boycott the restaurant and speak with your wallet. I’ll gladly pick up the deficit to not hear wailing babies while I eat an $80 steak, thank you kindly.

    • JK, I guess you missed this line. A pancake restaurant is a great place to start; I’m not so sure Morton’s Steakhouse is such a great place for a four-year-old.

      I agree with you. A pancake place or Applebees is a great place to start. However, when my son and nephew were thirteen, we took them to Ruth’s Chris’ with lots of coaching beforehand. It was a WONDERFUL experience (expensive!) but more than ten years later they are both fine young men who know how to behave in restaurants. Thanks for reading.

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