Andrea Mara: Why I bring my kids to restaurants (despite the dramas!)
“And did you sit in or just get takeaway coffee?” I asked my friend, who was telling me about a newly opened café.
“Oh, takeaway. Like, they had tablecloths,” she replied.
We nodded knowingly, as we watched our children in the playground. Bringing three small kids to a coffee shop takes guts at the best of times. A coffee shop with white linen tablecloths? No chance – takeaway will do just fine.
Restaurants and kids were in the news again recently, when US coffee shop owner Darla Neugebauer shouted at a two-year-old girl, telling her to stop crying. The internet rushed to take sides, with many praising Neugebauer’s forthright approach. And again, as is the case every time there’s a story like this, there were calls to ban children from restaurants.
Do we really need to talk about banning kids from restaurants, because of a small number of parents who don’t pay attention when they’re eating out?
When I choose a restaurant for a meal with my kids, I go for the one with the most noise. One that has a kids’ menu, and maybe some crayons and colouring pages. A high-chair - though I don’t need one anymore - is usually a good welcome sign. I don’t want to bring my kids to a very expensive restaurant, nor one with three different types of wine glasses at every place.
In the same way that I’d choose different restaurants for a date-night, a girls’ night or a work lunch, I go for certain types when I’m with the kids. The ones without the crisp white linen tablecloths.
I also don’t take them out late at night. Bedtime in our house is around 8.30pm, so at that stage I want them home and heading towards pyjamas, not sitting in a restaurant with the first-daters and the hen-party-goers.
And yes, when we’re eating out, my smallest gets up from time to time to have a wander around the restaurant. And I get up and I follow him, and I pick him up and bring him back, and pass him some more crayons. And after the third exploratory mission, I usually start thinking about getting the bill. As do most parents.
We’re not trying to stay out all night. We’re not remotely interested in annoying other diners, and hey, we’ve all been those other diners – and still are from time to time (when we can get a babysitter).
In Spain, families regularly eat out together. Patricia Conesa, a Spanish mother who lives here in Ireland, sees quite a difference between the two countries.
“I find that in Spain, eating out is a very normal occurrence, everyone does it, no matter the income or the occasion - it could be a birthday or simply just any weekday evening. Because eating out is just so common for us, it simply makes sense that children and babies of all ages grow up spending time in restaurants and diners. I don't think anyone ever thinks twice about a child being in a restaurant.”
So why do I do it if it means feeling a little on edge and hopping up and down to pull back roaming children? Because it’s a treat, because it’s a birthday, because I don’t feel like cooking, or because our local restaurant does way better fish and chips than I do.
But it’s more than that – I also think it’s good for the kids to get used to eating out. The only way they can learn how to behave in a restaurant is through first-hand experience.
Patricia agrees. “Children need to be exposed to restaurants, to learn how to behave in them. I think everyone can and should enjoy eating out. It should be the responsibility of the parents to decide whether their child is able to dine and behave at a certain time or setting. I don’t take my toddler to a fancy restaurant for a late meal, but I don't see why families with older kids who might be ready for the experience shouldn’t do so.”
Of course, there will always be examples of kids running riot while parents blithely ignore them. But it’s not a good enough reason to keep kids out of restaurants – it’s an argument for normalising family dining, and making it socially unacceptable for parents to abdicate responsibility. In the same way as it’s not OK to put your feet on the table or shout at the waiter, it’s not OK to let kids run wild.
So for now, we’ll keep eating out every now and then – not late, not fancy, but just enough. It’s my small attempt to normalise family dining. Or maybe it’s just for better fish and chips.
Andrea Mara is a shoe-obsessed, coffee-loving mother of three from Dublin. When she’s not working or looking after the kids, Elissa, 7, Nia, 5 and Matthew, 3, she’s simultaneously making tomorrow’s school lunches, eating Toblerone and letting off steam on her blog.
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