Restaurants are for eating, not playing: your thoughts

Restaurants are for eating, not playing: your thoughts

October 2015

By Less Dunn

In the October issue of delicious. magazine Les Dunn’s ‘Restaurants are for eating, not playing’ rant sparked a score of emails and letters from you. Here, we share his views on dining out with children and your views on his rant.

The rant:

A few years ago my wife and I went for Sunday brunch in a ‘family friendly’ south London restaurant. Footloose and child-free, we were ignorant of the implications of that innocent phrase.

Children ran around. Children screamed. Children ran around screaming. One child banged on the wooden floor with a plastic toy, over and over and over again. It wasn’t a one-off experience. At a hotel in Worcestershire (family friendly, of course), we watched as a pair of whooping children did laps of the public rooms, at cocktail hour, dragging a wheeled horse behind them. A third little darling went around the elegant lounge blowing out every tea light.

We were aghast. People around us, many of whom had well behaved children, looked equally aghast. Who was this family-friendly policy being friendly to: these families, or the neglectful parents and their young miscreants?

I’m not talking about ‘problem families’ either. One of the brunch parents was a newspaper editor. His kids ran amok while he chatted with his partner, never acknowledging their children’s presence (and I was watching closely, believe me…).

Yes I’ll say it: I blame the parents! Though I can’t decide if it’s because they’re cowardly wusses, negligent slackers or militant nutters, like the parents in a New Yorker cartoon: after their brood have set fire to the tablecloth of a nearby couple, they explain, “Kids burn things – if you don’t like it, don’t go out.”

Whatever the reasons, my rule is: a parent trying to keep their child under control is worthy of sympathy. A parent who’s not is a thoughtless git who’s ruining my dinner. To be fair, dining out with toddlers isn’t easy – their motor skills are haphazard and they have tantrums at the drop of a chip. But beyond toddlerhood, there are no excuses. There are places for kids to run around yelling – parks, playgrounds, living rooms, the dance floor at weddings… But restaurants aren’t one of them.

Some restaurants don’t help matters. Colouring-in sheets and crayons may seem inoffensive, but they encourage the idea that the restaurant is a place to play, rather than eat. Some restaurants even give the children toys, as though they’re pretending it weren’t a restaurant at all, but an unusually laid-out crèche.

Going to a restaurant, looking at a menu, ordering food, then eating and talking, should be part of the development of a young person’s life skills. All restaurants should be family friendly, because families should be able to go out to eat, and shouldn’t be discriminated against. But in return, parents need to keep to their side of the bargain and at least try to control their children.

“You don’t understand,” some will say. “You don’t have children…” Well we do now, and if they behaved that badly in a restaurant, we’d be giving them a proper talking to – and doing a lot of apologising. Having children doesn’t give you licence to ruin other people’s day with impunity.

Maybe parents are nervous about stifling little Oliver or Rosie’s creativity by introducing oppressive ideas such as manners. Well, we need to get over it. We should expose children to the civilising influence of a shared meal – in public as well as in private – and teach the adults of tomorrow how to do it properly.

Click next to read what our readers said about Les’ rant…

I wholeheartedly agreed with Les Dunn’s article about unruly children in restaurants. However, crayons and a colouring sheet have saved us from the odd meltdown when there has been a long wait between courses. I have to say though, I would much rather see a badly behaved child than one who has been plonked in front of an iPad! Since when has this become acceptable in a restaurant?
Helen Brown

“Restaurants are for eating, not playing” really struck a chord with me. I love eating out and I love a restaurant that says they are family friendly. I have two children, a seven year old and a thirteen year old. Whenever we try to go out for a meal I spend the hours before analysing if it’s a good idea. My eldest son is on the autism spectrum and meals out are quite often a very stressful experience. I believe his disability should not be a barrier to us eating out as a family, yet the tuts and stares we experience when we do venture out are sometimes very difficult to bear. We recently visited Ox and Bone in Huddersfield and I was so impressed with their laissez-faire attitude to my eldest son bouncing up and down the restaurant while we waited for our food. Please don’t judge the parents, sometimes they are not at fault and are just trying to do what other families do!
Helen Millott

I absolutely agree with the article published in the October issue. I do not have any children but am amazed at the behaviour of some children in restaurants and the parents ignoring that behaviour. I recently booked a holiday for next year and made the decision to go to a couples only resort. I don’t mind listening to children playing and splashing by the pool or dancing and running around in the evening. What I can’t bear and what has ruined previous holidays is children skidding around restaurants, picking food up and then putting it back in buffet areas, crying and screaming because they are tired and maybe had too much sun, and parents ignoring this behaviour. I love food, love the idea of eating out and making an occasion of it but something that becomes spoiled with naughty children and inconsiderate parents in the background. I wholeheartedly support the idea of adult only restaurants!
Jayne Powney

I totally agree with the article by Les Dunn in the October issue. When my husband and I go for a meal we want to be able to eat and have a conversation without screaming children about. When our children were young they never behaved so badly. It is of course the fault of the parents. If the children of today aren’t taught how to behave in public places, their children will be even worse.
Anne Stavers

As the mother of a child with autism I was upset and frustrated by Les Dunn’s article on “badly behaved” children in restaurants. That level of judgement, ignorance and total lack of understanding or empathy is the reason why many parents of children with autism feel unable to take their children to restaurants at all, fearful in case their child has a meltdown, disturbs people at other tables by being too noisy, is overly active or otherwise “misbehaves”.

Perhaps those parents he blames for not controlling their children are exhausted because they haven’t had a full night’s sleep in four years. Perhaps they thought that by bringing their child somewhere that is meant to be family friendly, they might actually have the chance to relax for once, without being in danger of judgement. Ha, fat chance of that, right Les?

On the whole, my daughter is good in restaurants. Those crayons that Les Dunn so decries are enormously useful in diverting a screaming tantrum because the food is taking too long to arrive. Oh, we should be talking to her? Well, yes I agree that’s a lovely idea, but holding an actual conversation is rather difficult when your child still isn’t talking at nearly five years old or older or is starting to get overwhelmed by the smells of food cooking or the buzzing of the overhead lights.

Should parents try to keep their children’s behaviour in check? Yes, of course, and allowing your child run around unsupervised isn’t okay but almost inevitably with an autistic child there will be times when they disturb other diners, perhaps because anxieties are causing the child to stim or because something has triggered a meltdown. I agree that restaurants represent a chance to teach vital life skills, but when you make parents of children with autism feel unable to visit restaurants without being judged, the children lose the chance to learn those life skills.

A little bit of tolerance and understanding go a long way.
Alison M

I am a parent myself and I absolutely agree with Les Dunn that children do need to learn the niceties of accompanying their parents out to a restaurant. It should be a given that it is a privilege to eat out with adults, their friends and families in a restaurant. Please do not misunderstand me, our young need tolerance but they also need to learn from adults the rules of a civilised society. In other European countries and societies, the English are frowned upon for their fussiness and their manners. This also goes for other public places like planes, trains, theatres and libraries where there are certain rules of behaviour. Even in the playground there are rules of behaviour and imagine a school canteen allowing children of any age to behave in such a way as to think they are the most important person on the planet. Allowing children to behave in this way is, in my humble opinion, letting our children down. They are more than capable of behaving in a way that is acceptable and proper. We are becoming the country most disliked on foreign shores because of behaviour just like this. Let’s make eating out a pleasure again both for the adults and the children. Good manners start at home.
Jennifer Pavlides

Our granddaughter sits at the table and holds her knife and fork correctly. If she wishes to leave, she asks to leave. She has been taught to do this by her parents. I was delighted to read the article. There are no excuses for bad behaviour. It’s down to the parents. There is a notice in a local restaurant informing diners that it is dangerous for children to run around due to staff carrying hot plates or stacks of empty ones and asking parents to ensure that children are controlled. This shouldn’t be necessary. Please do follow this with an article on table manners and how to hold a knife and fork.
Barbara Debney

I don’t know if Les Dunn has ever spent much time around children in general but I doubt it from his article about family friendly restaurants. As a mother of a toddler, the treat of dining out is a lot rarer than it was pre-children so sometimes we go to the abhorred “family friendly” type pubs to eat with our toddler. I agree that children should not be allowed to run amok, screaming and generally being annoying. However, children are not yet adults with adult table manners and etiquette and do not understand or care that some people want a restaurant to be quiet. To children, life is one big playground, wherever they are and they will often behave as such. Why go to a family friendly restaurant if you do not want to encounter normal child behaviour? Children are noisy, they bang toys on the floor, they drag toys behind them. They play. I disagree that all restaurants should be family friendly. The very nature of children means that they won’t sit still for hours through a ten course tasting menu at a three Michelin starred restaurant and nor should they be expected to. I fully support restaurants that do not allow children. They have chosen their market and by excluding one sector of society they have plumped for another. Similarly, family friendly restaurants have chosen to cater to a different sector, and those looking for a different dining experience can feel free to go elsewhere.
Hannah Ryder

I wholeheartedly agree with Les and his thoughts on restaurants. My husband and I eat out with our two boys, five and two years old, regularly. Many people told us that having boys particularly would put and end to coffees out, let alone three course meals. Not so. Perhaps because we eat as a family every night and have done so since we first started to wean our eldest. The boys will eat anything and love learning about food. They love being part of the event at home or out.
It’s important to teach kids how to behave and to respect the places they go to. One thing I would ask though, is what’s wrong with taking a few things for them to do? Yes, maybe older kids can be expected to hold a conversation but little ones aren’t wrong for wanting to have something else to occupy them. In time, they’ll put those things aside but in the meantime they’ve experienced what it means to be part of a meal, sharing good food and conversation, surrounded by those they love. What more could we want for future generations?
Karen Everill

While I largely agree with Les Dunn’s feelings about the sometimes annoying habits of children in restaurants and that “family friendly” does not mean crèche, I do take issue with the idea that restaurants that provide colouring sheets, crayons and toys etc are misjudged. Children develop and learn through play – fact. The activities the restaurant provides (especially food related activities e.g. design a chef’s hat) are a focus for social interaction with adults that children can really engage with. This then leads to more enjoyable dining experiences for everyone. Isn’t that the point?!
Ainsley McGoldrick

I have just finished reading the article published in your October issue by Les Dunn (“Restaurants are for eating, not playing”). Les, you have no idea how many times I have sat in restaurants wondering the exact same thing. As a parent of two toddlers (with whom I enjoy looking at the pictures of delicious. and deciding what to cook next), I am well aware of the challenges that eating out can face. If you take your children out with the aim of only speaking with your partner then yes, you will be disappointed by your child’s attention seeking behaviour. Unlike Les, I applaud the restaurants who provide colouring, something to clam those impatient moments when it has taken too long to get seated or you have taken too long to walk very slowly to the restaurant (because you had to stop and jump in every puddle or enjoy every snail on the pavement etc.). Those moments, all of us with small children know those moments, where extreme hunger has set in and a temper tantrum can explode after the smallest event such as sitting in the wrong seat. Those moments are what colouring and stickers are for. What Les didn’t mention is the growing trend of treating those moments with technology. Yes, the way to a quiet life in a restaurant is bringing out a phone or tablet and putting on Peppa Pig while waiting for the food to arrive. But then you are stuck. The food comes and your darling quiet child is going to scream if Peppa is turned off. So many children sit in restaurants, eating quietly with a phone or tablet propped up in front of then while the rest of the family chats. They may be quiet but surely that can’t be the way to making the foodies of the future. I strongly believe that there is a large environmental influence on our children’s ability to enjoy the experience of sociable eating, at home and in restaurants. Like it or not, children watch each and every one of our bad habits and strive to be like us. If we are fussy with our food, then they are more likely to find fault with foods. Children enjoy being part of our adult world, they enjoy taking part of our meal experiences and although they may not make great conversation as toddlers, they have to practice this interaction from the first meal out if they are going to have positive restaurant experiences. Parents, please enjoy eating with, and not just next to your children. Feed their positive behaviour and enjoy their childlike company. Those without children, other people’s children will often be slightly irritating, please be patient!
Lucy Smith

This article by Les Dunn is very good and very true. Our grandson, Alex, is three and from an early age has been taken out for a drink in a pub or a meal and has always been provided with things to occupy him. Last Wednesday we celebrated his aunt’s birthday with an evening meal out and his behaviour was excellent. While waiting to be served the mobile provided entertainment, quietly with earphones, then he ate his meal properly and didn’t complain that he was tired, just fell asleep on his mother. Friends with us commented on how good he was. Children can be good when they are out, you just have to plan properly to make sure they don’t get bored
Diana Davis

How I agree with Les Dunn. We have run the gauntlet of “family friendly” eateries with our children. This was back in the ’90s when it was not so common to eat out with children. There were only a few restaurants that would accommodate families and most of the time parents were polite enough to realise their children should not bother other diners. It has now gone completely the other way where most restaurants are child friendly, which can be a positive thing but only if parents accept that they are responsible for their children. That means they remain at the table and enjoy the experience. However, most parents feel this is a time for them to completely ignore their children and concentrate on themselves. I have watched so many parents in rapt conversation while their offspring cause mayhem through boredom.
Elaine Harris

I was really pleased to read the article by Les Dunn about children in restaurants and cannot understand why some parents think they have a right to ruin your meal experience by letting their children behave inappropriately in restaurants. I recently had a Saturday lunch in a local pub with an old friend. The table close to us had two children and three adults and was very noisy. The noise we could tolerate, however the children aged about four or six years then went to use the family toilet located adjacent to our table. These children decided the toilet was a play area, swinging on the door, playing with taps etc. The view of the inside of the loo while trying to eat our lunch was not great so I got up and asked the mother if she could ask her children to close the door, assuming she would get up and attend to them. The mother did not bother to get up but just responded by shouting across the restaurant for the children to close the door! My friend and I both have grown up children and know what it is like to have struggled with young children, however unfortunately I have little sympathy for parents who do not seem bothered about their children’s behaviour. While the article argues that all restaurants should be family friendly, I think very sadly that because some parents are so inconsiderate, I would prefer the option of going to restaurants that did not allow children.
Eve Robson

Les is completely correct but identifying the problem does not solve it. Those plagued by “small people” should not be afraid or ashamed to politely point out to restaurant staff that guests will not suffer bad behaviour. My wife and I recently visited an upmarket gastro pub and despite the 8pm booking (beyond the watershed?) a number of toddlers, present with a group of adults, were crying and crawling along the floor under the tables of diners trying to ignore their presence. We immediately requested that we be moved to the far side of the restaurant away from the culprits and suggested that to preserve any favourable reputation, a manager should speak to the parents immediately. Staff were obliging, apologetic, embarrassed and waived their service charge. The group of adults left shortly afterwards and guessing our actions came to offer their apologies. Perhaps by taking this action we prompted the restaurant to take a more proactive approach in the future and shamed the adults to think in the future. I doubt it, but if more people rightly complained, good eating establishments might just listen.
Guy Benson

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