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The Real Reasons My Kids Behave in Restaurants

Photograph by Twenty20

"You're lucky," someone often says to me. It's happened the last three times I've taken my young daughters to lunch or dinner by myself. "They're really good in a restaurant!"

"Thank you," I reply. And then something fumes inside. I'm not lucky. I'm not lucky at all.

Small kids and what might be considered "appropriate behavior" in restaurants can be a rarity, as well as being a dividing topic in this parenting age. Whenever a story surfaces in the news about unruly kids and a ticked-off manager or server, most arguments from the internet tend to be: "Let kids be kids and chill out; who cares if they're screaming?" quickly countered by "Kids should know how to act in restaurants, or parents should take them outside!"

Slap me now, but as a mom of two children under the age of 5, I tend to agree with the latter statement.

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Trust me, my clan has had our share of OMG-WTF moments in the middle of Cheesecake Factory. Also, I can't claim to not get embarrassed when my little ones have raised hell in public places. I'm not as cool and calm as actress and mom-of-two Kristen Bell. But I have managed to mitigate the unruly children thing over the years.

I'm not lucky that my kids know how to act appropriately in a restaurant at the ages of 5 and 4. I've been putting blood, sweat and tears into the cause for years to make it happen.

Sure, we have our less-than-ideal moments every now and again, but generally speaking, my kids have blossomed into dining divas; they know how to behave, the little rascals. (This coming from a woman who started taking her infant and 1.5-year-old daughter to restaurants alone and hasn't stopped since.)

Am I bragging here? No. (All kids are different, with their own hot buttons and personalities, duh.) But in the name of sharing what's worked for me, I'll tell you what I've done with them in restaurants since their infancy.

1. I took them outside.

We can't help it if and when our babies cry (hello, any mom feels that pain in a public place!) but I've always made a consistent effort to take the disruption outside in an effort to lead by example and let the message reveal itself over time. A baby doesn't understand that you can't scream bloody murder in a restaurant, but I've found toddlers do get closer to understanding if you're consistent and unapologetically firm about taking a walk outside, should things get extra crazy. "If you yell, I have to take you outside and we will leave all the french fries here and you won't get to finish them ... because it's against the rules to scream in a restaurant."

2. I resisted the electronics trap.

Some say I'm old school, some say I'm mean, some say I'm crazy, but I've maybe resorted to giving an electronic device to my kids in a restaurant once (that's not an exaggeration). I'm not claiming this as some sort of Sanctimommy tactic (I get it! sometimes you have to!), I'm just sharing my truth. Since day one, I've talked to my kids in restaurants, told them to talk to each other in the booth, instructed them to look at everyone walking into the place for people-watching entertainment, to color the menu and/or to count the lights on the ceiling, if we need to. But what if you do all of that? Just learn to "be" then. Sit there. Enjoy your own company. If you train kids early, they'll catch on quick. No iPad needed.

3. I've told them to shut up.

OK, maybe I haven't used those exact words, but yeah, I've told my kids to lower their voices and "be quiet now or else." Or else what? We go outside and you don't get to finish those french fries (again). And yes, I stick to my threat.

4. I used strangers to drive my point home.

"That lady is staring at us, wondering why we're being so crazy in a restaurant." I'm not against teaching my kids to be conscious and empathetic toward others in public places, and sometimes that's what we have to do. Use the strangers. "If we're not quiet, The Guys [me pointing to some of the staff] are going to come over here and kick us out ... and we'll never be able to come back." I can't even begin to tell you how much this trick worked from ages 1 to 3.

5. I make my kids apologize to the staff.

One particularly challenging day about a year ago, when my girls were acting especially sassy and demanding (dare I say, like brats), I summoned our server to our table. She looked at me implying, "Can I get you something," and I went into total mom mode. "Well, I just wanted to call you over here so my girls could apologize to you for acting unlike themselves in this restaurant. Girls, can you apologize to our server and tell her how you don't know why you're being loud and crazy, but that you really enjoy eating here and you hope we can come back anyway?" I winked at the server. She nodded and said "Thank you for apologizing." Instant behavior upgrade followed.

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I'm not a trained therapist, but I can tell you that making the difficult and consistent effort to keep my own kids in check in public places has added up over the years in the most rewarding way; we can shop, eat, and be out and about in peace (mostly). Not to mention, sticking to certain behavior standards in public places lends to teaching them the concept of empathy, regard for others' feelings and experiences around them and respect for authority during every day real life.

I'm not lucky that my kids know how to act appropriately in a restaurant at the ages of 5 and 4. I've been putting blood, sweat and tears into the cause for years to make it happen. I've left my dinner cold and uneaten in the name of making a point about listening and behaving better. Do I begrudge parents who disagree with my methods? Absolutely not. Just please don't tell me I'm lucky, because I've worked hard for it.

Who says you can't make your own luck? We all can. Trust me.

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