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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Restaurant Behavior

For many parents, there are few events that fill them with greater dread than the misbehavior or worse, meltdown, of a child in a crowded restaurant. Of course, being in public with your well-behaved children will often lead to praise and congratulations to both the parents and the children from appreciative fellow restaurant patrons.

People who know I write this column, often make the observation to me that children are not as well behaved as they once were. I don’t know if this is true or just seems true, but I will say that we are in public far more than our grandparents, and we certainly eat out more than our parents or grandparents generations did. With most of us taking our kids into public more often than the past we open ourselves to more chances of meltdown.

However, this also means we have more chances to work on behaving appropriately and politely in public. I must confess I do not have much experience with my kids misbehaving in public. I was spoiled in that our kids usually picked up on their surroundings and acted appropriately. When MarkII was a toddler we were quick to correct his behavior, but we also did some things to set him up for success.

His early success led to people complimenting his behavior and he quickly figured out that if he wanted to be praised he just had to be good in public. By the time the twins came around, they just watched their older brother and followed his lead. Usually if the kids were too rowdy in public it was because I had instigated it!

Success in public is tied to success in private and I maintain there are some things you can do to help yourself and your child. Consistency of both expectations and consequences is something that must be part of your discipline system. Having Mom and Dad on the same page is also critical. You don’t like to serve two bosses at the same time and neither do your kids.

When the kids are behaving well, provide plenty of attention and positive reinforcement. Pointing out a kid’s success is a lot more pleasant for everyone than correcting mistakes and the lesson lasts longer. Use other children’s behavior to highlight what you expect from your kids. Although, once in a crowded restaurant, a child had melted down and the mother was trying to get the kid outside. During a lull in the melee, my youngest son, who at the time was three years old, loudly pointed out, “Daddy, that boy needs a beatin’!” The woman and I were both mortified, but the older couple behind us dang near had a stroke from laughing.

Some other helpful suggestions: try to go out when your kids are well rested and if you can’t go to a restaurant where they have a playground for kids to burn off some steam and be with other kids. From the time the kids could talk, I had trivia questions I would ask from history and science. The kids would stay entertained and after a time, could answer questions that again brought positive attention from other patrons who would overhear the exchanges.

Most of the kids I see who are misbehaving, in or out of restaurants, do so because they want an adults’ attention. If they can get it through positive means, great, but if they have to get it in a negative manner, so be it. Make sure you aren’t so wrapped up in adult conversation or your own needs that you forget to make the evening enjoyable for them as well.

Mark Altman is a speaker and leadership consultant with the Altman Leadership Center. He has graduate work in Marriage and Family Counseling and is the author of Leadership For All the Mountains You Climb. He can be reached at

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