While your budget might put the squeeze on dining out regularly at restaurants, don’t completely cross the option off of your mealtime menu. Eating out, even occasionally, can help kids develop communication skills and learn acceptable behavior in a public place.
Manners. Basic etiquette informs those around us that we’re sensitive to them and aware of our surroundings. Consistently practice manners around your family’s dinner table to lay the groundwork for eating out. Whether you choose to dine at the mall food court or a sit-down establishment, role model how to place a polite order.
Coach your youngster to say “please” and “thank you” when the server delivers beverages and food. If your vigilant pupil observes another’s lackluster manners, ask your child how they’d conduct themselves differently.
Speaking up. Just when you think your child doesn’t have volume control, their voice drops to a whisper when ordering a drink. Before the server arrives, discuss the menu choices and prep your child about what to say. Remind your child that because restaurants can be noisy, they should speak up in a clear voice while ordering.
Eye contact. When your child orders, remind them to look at the server. Eye contact denotes confidence and signals polite respect. The skill isn’t easy for many people, especially kids who are apprehensive about interacting with people they don’t know. With time, repetition and maturity, kids can develop this valuable skill.
Self-confidence. Uncertainty is the root of fear. Start small, role model and practice. Preschoolers can order their own drinks (limit choices to ease decision-making) and work up to ordering a main meal. Encourage them to make specific requests like, “May I please have some ketchup?”
Got a kiddo who clams up when talking to adults? Avoid labeling your child as shy. Instead, place the order for your child by saying, “You wanted the cheeseburger, right? What kind of cheese would you like?” This gets them involved in the process. Eventually, they’ll grow more confident. Further support your child by responding to questions that they’re unsure how to answer.
Social cues. Eating in restaurants helps kids recognize social cues like body language, facial expressions, tone of voice and boundaries. These non-verbal cues help us discern appropriate behavior in a particular environment.
For example, you might say: “People talk quietly in this restaurant. We need to keep our voices down, too, so we don’t disturb them.” Or, “See how everyone is sitting down in their seats at their own table? We don’t run around or reach our hands across to other people’s booths because that bothers them.”
Self-control. Dining out often requires kids to stay seated for longer periods of time. Set your family up for success by initially choosing kid-friendly places that don’t have long waits.
If possible, call ahead to put your name on the waiting list when headed to a popular spot or beat the rush by arriving early. Warn your server if you think you’ll need to make an early exit due to an unpredictable or tired toddler.
Patience. Waiting is tough for adults, but it can be excruciating for a hungry tot. Bring a light snack like crackers, apple slices or raisins that will help ease hunger pains. Pack activities like crayons, blank paper, chat packs and a deck of cards. Draw pictures, play I-Spy, Tic-Tac-Toe, “Would You Rather...” or a game of Old Maid to help pass the time.
Small talk. According to the Family Dinner Project, mealtime conversation can help build a child’s vocabulary. Furthermore, eating out together fosters small-talk skills and family connection. Ask each other questions. Discuss sporting events, the weather, the upcoming weekend or share a humorous story.
Flexibility. Even if you’re packing up your meal early on your first few outings, keep trying. Restaurant experiences don’t always go smoothly. Kids may not like the food. They’ll complain, whine and express boredom during long waits but over time, they’ll get better at going with the flow.
Remember, you’re treating your youngsters to more than dinner out. They’re indulging in essential, real-life social skills that they’ll (someday) be grateful you taught them.
Fun ways to practice manners:
Play pretend restaurant at home.
Dress up and have a tea party.
Get silly by goofily imitating bad manners your child exhibits.
For parents with strong stomachs, have a ‘No Manners’ meal (might want to do this outside!).
From pizza to sushi, writer Christa and her husband have gotten to the point where they enjoy eating out with their 8- and 10-year-old sons. Christa is the author of Happy, Healthy & Hyperconnected: Raise a Thoughtful Communicator in a Digital World.
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