Kids and Restaurants: Parents Duke It Out

by Samantha Kurtzman-Counter

I had the craziest parenting experience, not once but TWICE this week.

I was sitting in a restaurant eating dinner with my son, thrilled to witness his ability to devour multiple salmon-avocado rolls (at 4 years old, my son is very excited about going out to dinner these days – such a pleasure after the years of painful out-of-home dining experiences.) There were very few people in the restaurant, given that it was 5pm.   Soon after, another family walks in.   Mom, dad, maybe 7 year-old boy, 4 year-old boy and a 6 month-old girl.  They sit down and the littlest one starts screaming – screeching that “oh cool! Who knew my voice could do this?” high-pitched squeal of discovery.  Yes, my son cringed and covered his ears.  Yes, it was not what we were hoping for during our much needed mommy-and-son night out together.   But… We laughed.  The mom was embarrassed.  We’ve all been there.

Then, all of a sudden, another woman darted from her table and stomped over to the mom of the happily screeching child and basically ripped her a new one:  “you are encouraging this behavior and you should get out of this restaurant!  What are you thinking sitting here and ruining all of our dinners??!!!”  Yelling.  And claiming, “ I never let my children scream like that in public, you must make her stop!”  Then, someone at another table across the room joined in, “just so you know, we completely agree.” The men all around the room started puffing up: “do you want to take this outside?” One stormed up to the table with fists in the air, and then fumed out of the restaurant. My son nearly started crying, looking up at me with dewy eyes, “what’s happening, mama?”  We left.

We ran into the mom of the baby 10 minutes later at the ice cream store where we were all drowning our sorrows in sugar.  They were shell-shocked.  Her older son’s cheeks were tear-stained.    I tried to console him and let him know that I thought the people who were so angry with his mom must have had a lot of stuff going on in their lives to make them so unhappy.  His mom looked at me with such gratitude: thank you, someone understands.

Those red eyes and wet cheeks are seared into my brain.  I can’t stop thinking of the little sister who was just learning that her voice could make such amazing sounds!  I wonder what the consequences will be in her family.  How the sounds she makes and the voice she continues to find may in some way resonate negatively with her brothers for weeks, months, years to come.

Don’t get me wrong – I also believe that if your kid is making a whole bunch of noise in a restaurant or other place meant for quiet, it is the parent’s responsibility to remedy the situation, or leave. But sometimes life isn’t that neat and tidy.  Sometimes you have to get out of the house with your 6-month old! Sometimes you have to treat your older son to a night out, and that’s the most important thing.  Sometimes your best laid plans for a lovely family night out devolves into a family disaster area.

Two days later, we had another dining experience interrupted, this time by a 4 year-old girl throwing a tantrum.  As she continued to wail, a man stormed up to the offending table and started yelling directly at the little girl!  Saying:  “will you please stop having a tantrum in this restaurant, there are other people trying to eat here!”  Which lead her father to retort, “how dare you talk to my daughter that way!”  Yet another near spiral into parental fisticuffs.

Whoah.  What is happening???

I’ve been mulling this over all week, wondering:  who is right in these situations?  In my mind, it is definitely not ok to allow a child to continuously disrupt the quiet of a restaurant.  It is without a doubt the responsibility of parents to be considerate enough to make sure their children don’t ruin the dining experience of those around them. Hot on the heels of these experiences I read an article about the North Carolina restaurant that banned whining kids.  I thought “wow, that’s harsh, I’d never go there” – but I get it.  I think it’s perfectly all right to determine “kid free zones” – we all need to get away from the maddening brood now and then.  But does it need to come to blows?  Why were these moments I experienced so heated?  Why has there been such raging debate on the restaurant ban in the mommy blogs?  Why such venom behind these reactions?

I’m starting to believe that aside from a genuine desperation to have a peaceful night out sometimes, the primary culprit is our exhaustive quest to be “good parents.”  We obsessively read all the books, we try all the methods of instilling self-confidence into our kids:  let their voices be heard, try to understand what they’re going through from their perspective, be there with them in their big feelings and don’t try to change them, focus on reflecting instead of altering their experience of life.  At the same time: set clear limits for them, don’t give negative attention, figure out logical consequences for their misbehavior, make sure they still know you’re in charge. The two camps often feel diametrically opposed and finding the balance between the two is a colossal task. Sometimes we become so myopic we can’t see what’s going on around us.

Rabid judgment of parenting styles has reached epidemic proportions.  This runs deep in both the non-parent community and the community with children.   For the people without kids it’s completely understandable – everyone thinks they can do better until they’re in it.   But as we all know, the judgmental virus runs even more rampant in the parenting community.   I believe it’s because we all struggle on such a profound level to “be good parents” against all odds of doing so – mostly because there is really no such thing.  There is no “ideal parent.”  There is no “doing it right.”   The popular parenting “rights” of the last generation are today’s “wrongs.”  We all have very different ideas about how to face the enormous challenges we encounter trying to raise healthy, grateful, well-mannered children.  Take away dessert for the night?  Time-outs?  Family bed?  Ultimately, we all have to forge our way, doing the best we can, and basically fight ourselves (and often our friends, our mates and our own parents) to believe that what we’re doing is ‘the right thing.”  Because otherwise, we’re messing our kids up for life, right???  Those are some pretty high stakes.

As we all know, if you’re spending that much time convincing yourself that what you are doing is the best thing, you’re bound to be a little defensive about it, and quick to judge others about different approaches.  How else will we know we’re right if we can’t prove that everyone else is wrong??    You didn’t sleep train?  You send your kids to daycare?  Your nanny picks your kid up from school?  Your kid watches TV every day?  They eat mac-n-cheese all the time???  We may not say it out loud, but the judgment never stops because we all feel so much pressure to do it right, figure it all out, be the best parent ever.

Where’s the empathy? Where’s the village? It’s hard, but we’ve got to be there for each other.  Your way might not be my way, but I sure know that no matter which way you’ve chosen to go, it’s going to be difficult.  And undoubtedly, you can use all the support you can get.  I know that because you and I are in the same boat of daunting parental challenge.  We all are – so let’s use all our collective strengths to paddle upstream together.

Sam Kurtzman-Counter is the Executive Vice-President of Production at The Mother Company.  After many years working as a director/producer of TV and film, Sam joined The Mother Company team, where all facets of her work, family and creative life come together.  To learn more about Sam you can check out her bio on The Mothers page, or read her article “Integrating Work and Home Life.”

What do you think about this debate?  Let us know!

Posted in: Behavioral Issues, Parental Wisdom, The Mother Co. Mamas, Tough Topics