I have just returned from a trip to Bermuda and am amazed by the absence of hand-held electronic devices in use while dining in restaurants. It was refreshing to see children and parents engaged in conversation as they sat eating their meals, a practice that was common in the days before technology seemed to take over every aspect of our lives. Although I am a great believer in the effectiveness of advanced technology, I believe that there are times when it is obstructive to developing social civility and one of those times is when dining in a restaurant. Now think about it! Honestly, can’t that call wait until you are no longer in the midst of the family you love? Wouldn’t a child benefit from taking part in conversation as opposed to the asocial behavior that is inherent in hand-held video games?
It is difficult for young children to sustain any semblance of acceptable behavior during a three to five-course meal in a restaurant. Perhaps that is why in part, so many fast food chains are packed during dinnertime. There, behavioral expectations are at a minimal. Children can shout, run about, and watch their French fries fall to the floor and it will go unnoticed by patrons within earshot.
So what can grandparents do when they are babysitting their grandchildren and they want to eat in a fine restaurant? My first reaction? Don’t eat out! Order in! But, often parents and/or grandparents wish expose their young to restaurants in order to educate them about proper behavior and help them to develop social awareness when eating out. Those being the case, and as a grammy who has experienced a similar desire to treat her grandchildren, I would advise grandparents to prepare a little cache of items to quietly entertain their grandkids. Note the emphasis on the word “quietly.” As much as we love our grandchildren, the rest of the patrons in a restaurant don’t necessarily share our devotion.
Many restaurants are child friendly: pizza parlors, fast-food chains, local diners, Chinese restaurants etc., but when it comes to eating more sophisticated fare, it is incumbent upon the adults at the table to ensure calm and order so that other diners may enjoy their meals.
On a recent excursion to New York City, my husband and I took May, her mother and her Aunt Jessica to the New York Athletic Club for brunch. Admittedly, we did so because Richard wanted to show his granddaughter off to his friends who rarely get the chance to see her, but he also knew that there would be a buffet offering a variety of foods from which she could choose.
Dress children up (in May’s case the rarely worn dress, a bow in her hair and shoes instead of sneakers) and they’re more apt to rise to the occasion. I brought along my “behavior modification” bag of tricks, as did my daughter Nancy, but there was never a need to resort to its use. May was truly amazing as she sat, napkin in lap, happily eating items she selected with the help of her grampy. Of course, it should be noted, that she was in charge of choosing items to eat from a vast array of foods and she was included in the brunch-time conversation as she ate. Children love to feel empowered and thus become more inclined to rise to an occasion.
The New York Athletic Club was an exceptional experience. Generally, when we eat out with our grandchildren we pack activities that will keep them engaged. Many of these items can be bought at stores that carry educational games and supplies such as Lakeshore Learning and Staples. I have found that Scratch Art, crayons, blank paper, Color Change Games, and Wipe Off Activity Fun Books, keep a child engaged and can be purchased according to age. As for nine-month-old Eloise, she seems content with bits of Cheerios, a cold teething ring for her aching gums and a fabric book to crumple and/or chew. Infants are at a discovery age and love to listen to sounds they are capable of producing (empowerment at its earliest stage?).
Make no mistake; even with all of the “keep-them-busy” paraphernalia, I still involve myself in their activities. It is unrealistic to think that you can expect children to quietly play by themselves for any extended period of time unless some sort of cyberspace video game mesmerize them; perish the thought. It is easy for adults to let their children play video games while in a restaurant, but what kind of social skills are we helping them develop? If we choose to take children to restaurants, then we assume the responsibility of including them in conversations and taking part in the activities that we bring for their amusement.
I recognize that life certainly has changed since our children were little and that children today have grown used to tuning out their surroundings as they tune into cyberspace. But, social awareness and the art of conversation will always be in vogue. Entertaining children in a restaurant need not be a herculean task regardless of how hooked on stimuli children might be. Engaging children in conversations about subjects that will be of interest to them will only serve to cement the A plus image for which we grandparents strive.
Technology in all its influence can never replace the heartfelt love that is transmitted between grandchild and grandparent when the time is taken to talk and play together. Sharing a meal in a restaurant should be viewed as an opportunity to demonstrate the good manners and social cues that will carry our grandkids on to becoming well-respected and considerate adults. After all, they are the future.