Whether or not money has in fact changed hands, the restaurant’s policy feels like a fine point on a long-running debate about whether kids even belong in restaurants. This debate has always struck me as—well, sort of fake. It tends to focus on high-end dining, to which I say: You’re not telling me there’s an epidemic of parents out there who want to take their kids to five-star joints. There’s a natural barrier to entry. I don’t want to pay $40 for something my child won’t eat. But the debate speaks to an underlying collective angst: Kids can’t hang. They literally can’t sit calmly and quietly for the length of a meal. And this is relatively new.
By the time I was my oldest’s age—nine—I was a varsity sitter. I had been sitting in church silently for an hour every Sunday since sentience; at Catholic school, save for a half-hour lunch and recess, I faced forward in my plastic chair, ankles crossed beneath the desk.
But my kids don’t go to church. Their schools offer a number of movement measures to keep them engaged throughout the day: Seasonally-themed yoga stretches, beanbag-studded calm down corners. And, as we work from home with our standing desks and our watches constantly urging us up, my husband and I don’t exactly model a lot of sitting still, either. Culturally, in terms of health, we’ve come to think of sitting like smoking. So it must be confusing for kids who have no bedrock sitting education to suddenly enter a place that serves food and find everyone treating sitting as a mandatory art. This is the empathetic mindset I take when my kids start wriggling at restaurants.
No, I’m kidding. I grit my teeth and hiss threats just like everyone else. Or I just go to a brewery, since breweries are bastions of judgment-free dining. The menus are really just kid menus with upcharges for gruyere, and there’s always a patch of gravel where my kids can play cornhole or simply eat the gravel, a sight that bothers me less with an IPA in my hand.
But now it’s winter, and we have to come inside. We must dine. We parents of young children will divide ourselves into our two indoor-season camps: The parents who come armed with tablets and more sets of personal headphones than a museum tour, who speak only to each other as their children munch fries with their heads ducked over a Bluey. And the parents like me, who are vain about their parenting and will only use screens on vacation, where no one knows us. Who maintain the ill-advised hope that this is the time the kids will be good.
Emily Krawzyk, an independent etiquette consultant and the dining etiquette instructor at The Saturday Club in Wayne, Pennsylvania, understands. She frames the dining-out battle as one that parents have lost before we’re shown to a table. “Your kids hear so many things from you throughout the day,” she says. “Sit up, nice manners–it’s just one more thing [to tune out]. And because dinner time is at the end of the day, you as a parent are at the end of your rope.” Krawzyk’s main suggestion for parents struggling with kid behaviors at the table is to reframe why good behavior is good. “Kids need to be told why they’re being asked to do something,” she says. “I tell my students: The focus of dining etiquette is to have everyone enjoy the conversation and to make the people around you feel like you respect them. If you’re chewing with food flying out of your mouth, does it look like you’re interested and engaged? If you’re sitting with your elbows on the table, does it look like you want to be here?”