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Sorry, Internet, But There Is No Simple Formula For Producing Perfectly Well-Behaved Kids in Every Situation

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By now, you've no doubt seen the viral story about the Washington state family, who, after dining out Italian with their three young pods aged 2, 3, and 8, received a bill with a $4 "well-behaved kids" discount and some free ice cream as a reward. The Internet, in love with a simple platitude that purports to explain away the hassle of nuance or reality, has once more fallen to the floor weeping with solidarity for restaurant owners and general humans everywhere, because, "FINALLY, some good parents!"and the like. Because what? Behind every misbehaving kid is a horrible parent who didn't follow the exact rules for producing a well-behaved child? Oh please.

First off, the King family is adorable and the King parents seem like fucking awesome parents. Just look at this picture of them! I don't even know them and I totally love them and their children, or at least want to hang out and be pretty good friends. They are the epitome of a cute young family with sweet looking kids, and I commend how thoughtfully they are obviously parenting them. The restaurant — who is absolutely free to give all the discounts and free ice cream they want — thought so, too:

Rob Scott, the owner of the Sogno di Vino in Poulsbo, Washington, told that the Kelly children, ages 2, 3, and 8, were "the epitome of good behavior: they were very polite, didn't neglect to say "please" and "thank you," and stayed seated during their visit. That's often not the case when kids come to his restaurant, Scott said. Many end up shouting or running around the eatery unchecked."


The King family children were the epitome of good behavior because they weren't acting so much like kids. They were acting more like adults. Sure, kids can absolutely behave, and say please and thank you — I have an almost-3-year-old who says this every day. And they can do that in lots of settings. At lots of times.

But not always. Not always on command. And definitely not as if there is merely one simple formula for utter restaurant compliance. Kids aren't always so polite, you see, and the notion that you can always control them if you're a "good parent" and that if you can't, you're a "bad" parent or you somehow haven't taught your children good manners, is ludicrous. (To be perfectly clear, the King family never once implied this in anything they did or said. I am talking merely about the Internet response.)


Even restaurant owner Rob Scott acknowledges this "epitome of good behavior" is rare. Many of the kids "end up shouting or running around the eatery unchecked" because this is pretty typical kid behavior. Not "kids today" behavior. Regular old kid behavior. Not bad kid behavior. KID behavior. Dig?

Sure, parents don't need to let their kids run around unchecked — let's not get sidetracked on that. But even kids forced to sit at a table act up. It's the darndest thing. They just won't always do what you tell them.


That's why when kids display the ability to "act right" for a period of time, we applaud it, because they are on the path to acting more like grown-ups, that is to say, acting more like we expect adults to behave in society, which is what we encourage children to do as soon as possible so as to socialize them. It's so great! We are all so happy when our little grown ups show us they can mimic our behavior and "act right." I'm not saying we shouldn't keep doing that. (There's an entirely different convo we could have about HOW to do that "correctly" too — many experts argue that the behavior is supposed to be its own reward, and that giving treats or using money to encourage positive behavior is a slippery slope, such as with this dad, who paid his 13-year-old daughter $200 to leave Facebook, at her behest. Brilliant or troubling?)

But let's keep some perspective here: When young kids don't "act right," we try not to merely punish that, but explain why it's not appropriate. We try to channel their kid behavior into kid-appropriate spaces or the home as much as possible. We try to guide better behavior. And we try to, yes, encourage and reward in some healthy or fun way the more adult-like behavior that it's our job to instill to hopefully turn out some model citizens for the future.


But this is not an algebra equation. Anyone who spends regular time around kids understand that children — adults, too — are a work in progress. They are, most importantly, still learning impulse control, and a myriad of factors contribute to a well-behaved child, none of which are necessarily concrete or controllable in every situation.

In other words, what makes a kid act right one time but not another? What can you really expect from a 2- or 3-year old versus an 8-year-old? Toddlers are notorious for being really sweet one minute and then lying down on the floor to sob uncontrollably a second later, all because you accidentally put her spoon on the wrong side of the bowl when you set the table.


They can be helped and guided with this very real struggle going on inside them with their emotions and impulses, and there are certainly conditions which make them more or less bewildering. But nothing, I repeat nothing, is a guarantee.

Laura King, the matriarch of the unicorn of well-behaved broods, knows this as well as any parent. She listed a few tips on her blog about what helps kids behave in the restaurant setting.


My suggestions to other parents:
* Take your kids out to eat at least a couple times a month.
* Give your kids a snack before you head out.
* Be sure they're rested and healthy.
* Be ready to engage with your kids.
* Notice the people, art, music, food in the room and talk about it.
* Encourage your kids to talk with you just like you would talk with another adult.
* Enjoy the time you've carved out to be with them.

This is totally true. Any parent will tell you that a well-rested and happy child is more likely to be a well-behaved one. (But not always — a really excited child can have trouble calming down. Fussiness is not always about being tired or hungry. And you can't certainly cannot do a thing about the temperament your child was born with.) But note that her list is not a foolproof guaranteed money-back system she's selling to ensure correct restaurant behavior, because THAT DOESN'T EXIST.


When we eat out with our toddler, which is a few times a month, we go in ready to engage her. Ready to distract her if necessary. Ready to manage her normal toddler behavior within the constraints of a public setting such as a restaurant where we know most places, aside from ones super kid-friendly, are not that jazzed to serve children.

But we do some other stuff I know a lot of parents also have to do on the front end to avoid being that family in the restaurant with the kids everyone hates. For instance, we routinely turn down offers to join friends for dinner — with our child — if we sense that she's not having the best day to dine out, whether because she's getting over an ear infection or didn't nap well or just seems grumpy.


But most of all, we are ready and willing to leave if/when she gets unmanageable. But since you don't see always see this happening, you probably think there are just good kids and bad kids. It's not helping anyone see that kids can be perfect little angels and incorrigible little monsters too. I'm not asking for a discount. I'm just saying, there's so much more to this.

Then there is this incredibly important response post by the mother of a child with a sensory processing disorder on the blog Parenting the Complex and Interesting Child. Linette Murphy writes in a post called "Hell's Kitchen," an enlightening and heartbreaking take on what can be going on with the child sitting at that table that doesn't "deserve" the free ice cream, including "invisible disorders" you may not be able to pick up on:

What that restaurant owner fails to see when he judges whether each family deserves that discount or free sundae is what it may have taken to even get that family to walk in the door. Is that family visiting his restaurant with their child who is on a day pass from a psychiatric unit like mine has done as a break from hospital food and an opportunity to be outside of the hospital walls and have a modicum of normalcy in a world that has otherwise been filled with unimaginable pain and experiences that most kids will never endure and no family should, ever. Did that family have to preview what the evening out would be like? Complete with picture schedules. Or did he think that the family may have spent that dinner coaching their child through self regulation because that child can be so unaware of their oral/motor skills that they literally stuff their mouths until they choke if they don't have someone reminding them to "take just one bite and then swallow".


Should we be telling families with kids like that to just stay home? Of course not. And to be clear, no one, including Linette Murphy, is saying to stop rewarding good behavior. But when we all rally and hold up one example of positive behavior and deem it correct, or use it as some kind of "LOOK HERE all parents, this is how you do it, and please try to live up" we discount the experiences of other parents with other struggles who have no such easy options.

So sure, let's applaud the King family and give them a discount. But let's not be so simple-minded about what parenting involves, about what producing a well-behaved child involves, and about who is at the table next to us, and let's not make the mistake of arguing that the family with the well-behaved children is somehow intrinsically better than the one with the kid who won't stop crying.


And maybe, we could recognize that a round of applause for a moment of good behavior is just that — a moment. Even the best, most engaged parents who are the most attentive and do everything "right" — whatever, for the love of God, that means — will still absolutely produce children who throw tantrums. In public. At restaurants. It's part of life.

Image by Jim Cooke