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Dining out with kids: Etiquette tips for new parents

Aug. 20, 2013 at 8:11 AM ET

This past Mother’s Day, Angela Bates’ husband, Jim, treated her to dinner with their almost-2-year-old daughter, Kaitlyn. When the toddler saw someone who frightened her, she began crying. 

As Bates soothed her daughter, she saw another mother making scene and insisting that she needed to be moved because she couldn’t eat near a crying child.

“I [felt] very self-conscious,” writes Bates, a customer care rep in Pittsburgh, in an email. “There was no rhyme or reason to [Kaitlyn’s breakdowns].”

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Etiquette experts urge parents to practice at home before taking a child out to a restaurant.

Many couples want to take their small children out to eat, but worry how their young ones will behave.

Dining out with children is clearly a hot button issue. Earlier this month, the owner of the Rainy Days Caffe in Lake Stevens, Wash., sparked a social media frenzy when she publicly criticized customers whose children made a mess.

Meanwhile, more restaurants are implementing a “no kids” policy in response to customer complaints. Houston’s La Fisheria bans children under 8 after 7 p.m.

A sushi bar in Alexandria, Va., allows only patrons 18 and over and a restaurant in Monroeville, Pa., banned children and says it has seen increased sales.

What are parents to do? Should families stay at home until their children are old enough to sit through a meal? 

“Yes,” says Daniel Post Senning, great-great grandson of Emily Post, co-author of "Emily Post’s Etiquette, 18th edition," and spokesman for the Emily Post Institute

“Some places are grownup places,” he explains.

“There is a certain expectation that until [kids] are old enough you don’t put them in that position to fail.”

Senning urges parents to practice at home. Sit down to dinner and ask the children to use inside voices and napkins, while sitting properly at the table. Parents should make sure their children understand that when someone talks to them, they need to respond. And if children act up or discuss something inappropriate, calmly correct them.

“My mother used to say NTT -- Not Table Talk,” Senning explains.

This warning was respectful and quiet. She directed her children without making a scene. And when the Senning and his brother heard “NTT,” they knew it was time to behave.

This anecdote highlights the importance of expectations with consequences.

“You set the expectation, you set the consequences, and you follow through,” Senning says.

“If other people are being impacted you remove yourself and your child from the situation … you don’t indulge [a misbehaving child].”

The Bates family has observed that Kaitlyn has recently discontinued her crying fits and dining out feels more pleasant. Even at the worst moments, other parents shared encouragement.

While a crying child is an inconvenience to others, Sheryl Trower, founder of The Etiquette School of Central Pennsylvania, explains that how adults handle the situation can make them seem worse than a screaming child. 

“A lot of times, you become the bigger jerk than the person who causes the problem because of how you handled it,” she says.

“Etiquette is all about making people [feel comfortable].”

When it comes to a kid misbehaving in a restaurant, Senning and Trower agree that parents bear the ultimate responsibility, not the child. If the children are having a bad day, reschedule. Remember to bring activities to keep the kids seated throughout a meal.

Trower recommends that parents practice with their children in a step-up situation. Once they’ve mastered eating at a fast-food restaurant, take them to a casual restaurant and then to a nicer, locally-owned restaurant.

“Take them to a neighborhood restaurant and introduce them to the owner -- this is Mr. John; this is his place and if you don't mind your manners we will have to tell him,” she says.

“This is a privilege, not a right, to go out to eat.”

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