Zionsville Times Sentinel

October 31, 2012

Teaching your children the do's and don'ts at the table

By Tess Worrell/Times Sentinel columnist

— We’ve become used to “the look.”

The look restaurant servers give when a party of 10 — eight of them children— arrives asking for a table. Their faces clearly communicate, “Oh, please not my table. Not eight children!” Yet, by the time we leave the restaurant, generally the kids have made a new best friend in the server, and the meal has been a blast for the family. What does it take to turn the look of despair to a look of, “It was a pleasure to wait on you?”

Children must be able to sit still. Servers fear children who clamber around the table, scream because they want up — or worse — run around the restaurant. Enjoyable children sit still. Children who don’t sit through a meal at home won’t sit still in a restaurant. Time spent training children to sit through family dinners pays huge when they need to sit in public — especially if the food preparation is a little slow.

To help children develop this skill, begin early. From the time children are sitting in a high chair, scoot them up to the table to be part of the meal. Parents may want to reserve certain, special toys only for mealtime to give toddlers a focus for their energy. But, to the extent possible Mom and Dad should focus conversation on the toddler as well. When you expect children to sit until everyone is done, they learn this norm.

Conversation counters squirming in older children — from preschool to teen. Our children long for our attention and focus. When we ensure mealtime conversation includes everyone, they want to be at the table. This isn’t the time for Mom and Dad to discuss bills or compare calendars. Nor should it be a time to deal with behavioral issues with children. Instead, keep mealtimes positive. Focus on everyone sharing what happened during their day.

The same children who love conversing around the table at home enjoy taking the conversation on the road. They bless everyone in the restaurant with an ability to stay quietly in their seats. One challenge of restaurants:  At home, we don’t call our children to the table until the food is ready; restaurants require sitting between placing the order and getting the food. Ensuring a supply of activities for younger children during the wait-time can make all the difference. Most restaurants cover this with coloring pages or games, but smart parents pack a few activities to engage children should the wait time get long.

Children must use manners. Servers dislike rude children but love those who behave courteously. Just as with sitting, children won’t magically discover manners in a restaurant. The habits of home will magnify in public — so the habit of good manners at home will magnify the joy of your children’s presence in public. But, there must be manners at home.

We all know this. So, require “please” and “thank you” from children in order for them to receive. Children as young as 12 months can develop this habit, which will serve them for the rest of their lives. Children should be able to wait their turn, look others in the eye to respond to a question, and wait to speak until someone else is done. Again, children pick up these habits early when parental expectation and teaching is there.

A dear friend became that dear friend after I met her son. The first day of first grade Sunday school, Mom brought her son to the class and introduced me. Immediately this 6-year-old boy sticks out his right hand, shakes mine, and says, “Hello, Mrs. Worrell, it’s nice to meet you.” I was amazed. I wanted to know all the tricks of a mom who could instill such character at age six. When our children honor others through manners, servers can’t wait to have them as customers.

Let children leave the tip. You supply the money, but give it to your children with the teaching that “a way to say thanks to our server is to leave some extra money.” This shifts our children’s thinking to consider the person who has been filling their drink and bringing extra ketchup. They learn to value the person going to all that effort. On occasion we’ve even had a child put in some extra money of their own because the server was so nice.

When children begin to value the server as a person who is making their experience enjoyable, children want to cooperate and be gracious — making a server’s day.

Servers may give “the look” when families enter the restaurant. But, if parents take the time to train their children — waiting on families may become the highlight of a server’s day.

Tess Worrell is the mother of eight and teaches parenting and marriage. Email her at tess@yourfamilymatterstous.com.