For a lot of parents, the prospect of an evening spent dining out in a fine restaurant prompts an automatic call to the babysitter. Children get chicken nuggets or spaghettio's while mom and dad enjoy a delicious and peaceful meal. It's a win-win situation.
Or is it?
There seems to be an unspoken rule in our culture that there are restaurants where "children don't belong."
You know, the kind with fine china and white tablecloths and servers who seem to have nothing better to do than stand there and watch you eat and anticipate your every move -- I've been to Tony's exactly once, and I don't care how good their food is, if fine dining means ten pairs of eyes watching me spill spaghetti down my front, then I don't need it anyway. I looooove good food, but I hate snobbish pretentiousness.
But I'm digressing . . .
For some reason, we expect to see children in only a certain "type" of restaurant -- the type with a drive-thru window or a clown with balloons or a Kid's Eat Free promotion. Basically, any restaurant with a kid's menu comprised of the obligatory chicken fingers, Kraft macaroni and cheese, or hot dog and french fries.
Oh, and toasted ravioli if you live here in St. Louis.
But what are we teaching our children about food if we never let them experience what "real" food tastes like? And more importantly, what are we teaching them about their place in the world?
That they count less just because they're young? That they aren't big enough or important enough to deserve a place at a real table or to eat food that won't clog their arteries and contribute to scores of health problems in the future?
Or is it that we as adults are too busy or too lazy to take the time to teach them the things they need to know and the manners they need to have in order to dine out successfully?
Because, yes, I know that there are people who don't want children in nice restaurants. Check out this YouTube clip about a restaurant owner who put up a No Screaming Children sign. Be sure to listen to the discussion at the end, because it's a complicated issue and you'll hear some interesting opinions.
Now, I know that there are plenty of people who are annoyed by children in general. I remember that old cliche about how children should be seen and not heard. But children have to learn somehow. And they aren't going to learn manners and proper social graces unless we teach them to them and then take them -- gasp, horror -- out in public to places where they can practice these manners.
I actually agree that screaming children and bad behavior don't belong in a nice restaurant (or in any restaurant for that matter - just because you're at McDonald's is no reason to let your kids run wild).
But I also know that most parents are doing their best, and sometimes it just happens. Sometimes, it's your child who starts screaming in the restaurant, and you're the one getting the stares and the can't-miss vibes that "that child shouldn't even be in here in the first place."
Which is kind of ironic because if you're anything like me you were probably already thinking "Oh my God, I shouldn't have brought him in here in the first place."
"What really needs to be recognized about children," writes Renee at Womanist Musings in her post My Child Takes Up Space, "is that they don't have the capacity to act in the same way that adults do. This does not make them lesser beings and we need to find a way to accommodate them, even when they make drinking a latte a less than comfortable thing." She goes on to write:
"Quite frankly it is not your business and I don't care how much you spent on a meal at a restaurant. My children are not going to grow up with the idea that going to McDonald's is eating out because you think that their presence detracts from the ambiance."
Jenny at The Nourished Kitchen also has a great post on this issue entitled Raising Real Food Kids: 10 Tips For Dining Out With Your Child in which she offers practical solutions for the real-life dilemmas that you may encounter when you try to take your little ones to nice restaurants.
Her suggestions include things like arriving early before the restaurant is too busy, bring small, quiet toys, sitting outside or near an exit in case you need to make a quick getaway, and discussing restaurant etiquette before leaving home.
Taking children to eat in nice restaurants requires effort and planning. It requires that we as parents have an idea of what type of food will be on the menu and are reasonably certain that we will be able to find something our children will enjoy. It requires that we know how long they will be able to sit still. It requires that we know not to take them into a quiet place when it's late at night and they are both tired and hungry. It requires patience.
Like most other acts of parenting, it requires work.
And I totally get that sometimes it's work that we're too tired to do.
Sometimes, it's harder with one child than another. When my daughter was 2, we took her to restaurants like The Drunken Fish (excellent St. Louis sushi, by the way) quite often, and she was always well-behaved. Now that my son is 2, I can't imagine taking him into a restaurant like that. It would be way too much stress for all involved, because he just doesn't have the capability to sit still and talk quietly that my daughter had at that age.
But, you can count on it that as soon as he's a little older and a little more mature, he'll be going with us.
Because while I believe that screaming children don't belong in restaurants, and that a good family restaurant has its place, and that a babysitter and a child-free meal are fine once in a while -- or hell, every Saturday night if you can swing it -- I also believe that we should introduce our children to good food and good restaurants as soon as we feel they are ready.
I believe that our children deserve better than McDonalds, and that if we really want to, we can offer them so much more.
Do you take your children to nice restaurants? What are your favorite St. Louis restaurants for eating with your kids? Are they all casual, or do you frequent some fancy places? And what do you do when they can't behave?