I feel like I’ve reached a stage in my life where I can give parenting advice. For one thing, I’ve co-authored two books about raising kids with autism, so right there I have some decent credentials. I’ve also raised four kids, and the feedback I’ve gotten about them has been pretty positive–so far teachers and administrators and employers seem happy to have them around, and I feel the same way, which maybe doesn’t sound like such a huge recommendation, but trust me, there are some parents who breathe a sigh of relief when their kids leave the house.
So I was thinking recently about good parenting versus bad parenting and after hours of contemplation and research, I realized it can all be boiled down to one small and easily-followed but incredibly important bit of advice:
If your kid screams in a restaurant, take him the hell out of there.
Look, I get it. Eating out can be fraught–kids can be overhungry, overtired, angry that the food doesn’t taste like the food at home, upset because they spilled something, upset because you didn’t let them spill something, uncomfortable in a high chair, uncomfortable in a regular chair, too cold, too hot, too antsy, too bored . . . It’s easy for all that to lead to some crying, maybe a little screaming. And what do you do then? Most parents try to shush their kids, try to reason with them, try to ignore them, all the while desperately trying to eat their own dinners. The last thing they want to do is leave. Then they’ll never get to finish.
The problem is there’s only one right thing to do with a crying kid in a restaurant: explain that if she doesn’t stop immediately, she’ll have to leave the restaurant, because she’s disturbing the other guests. And then follow through with what you’ve said.
Why does it matter? Well, think about all a kid learns from this one brief experience:
1. He learns that the privilege of going out somewhere special is contingent on good behavior. It’s the beginning of a lifetime of learning how to behave in public. You want your child to be polite, use a fork, dress nicely? This is where all of that begins.
2. She learns to respect parental authority. You’ve laid down the rule: we can’t let you stay in here if you’re going to be disruptive. And you follow through on it: we’re taking you out because you’re still being disruptive. Simple, clean, elegant. It’s how parenting should be: no anger, no abuse, no irrationality. Just a simple, “Only quiet people get to eat in restaurants, so if you can’t be quiet, you can’t eat here.” And the truth is, kids don’t like to spiral out of control. They like to feel their parents are watching over them and will always keep them from going too far.
3. At the same time, she learns that she has control over her own behavior and its consequences: screaming in a public place means you lose the privileges associated with that place; calming down brings them back. This is the kind of connection you want your child to make. Parents have authority; she has control.
4. He learns empathy and awareness of other people. I can’t tell you how many kids on the west side seem incapable of understanding that they’re not the center of the entire universe. I once saw a kid lie down in the middle of a stairway that about a hundred people were using and just stay there. What did his mother say? Not, “You have to get up or I’ll pick you up: these people need to get by.” Nope. She stood there smiling and remonstrating with him at some length: “Oh, honey, don’t do that. Please get up. You could get hurt.” People backed up behind them for an entire flight and she’s encouraging him to think about himself. Anyway, my point is, kids need to understand that other people are eating in that restaurant and those people have a right to a quiet, pleasant environment. Want him to get involved with community service down the road? This is where it starts, with a basic awareness of other people’s needs.
And as far as missing out on your meal goes, you’ll probably be back inside pretty soon, with a much quieter, calmer child–there’s nothing like sitting in a boring car with a calm but stony-silent parent to bring home how much more fun it was to be eating french fries and drinking chocolate milk. You won’t have to do it often–I don’t think we had to carry any of our kids out of a restaurant more than once.
So that’s it. That’s the sum total of my parenting advice: take your kids out of a restaurant if they refuse to be quiet, and you’ll raise sweet, well-behaved, empathetic little angels. Let them scream and carry on without any repercussions and they’ll be entitled little monsters. It’s your call.
Oh, and if anyone knows the mother who was seated about two tables away from us at Kay N’ Dave’s last weekend, will you please forward this post to her? She really needs to read it.