In our early family life we lived in Wisconsin. This basically meant seven solid months of winter-like weather as anyone living in the northern states can attest to. I came to realize that our social life on the weekends during these frosty days would mainly consist of taking the boys out to dinner. Being a stay-at-home mom I looked forward to being ‘out in the world’ and more importantly, not having to cook. To get the boys to comply with these restaurant outings, I had my work cut out for me.
As soon as my boys could understand language, I started the repetitive process of letting them know when they could be excused from the table. I wanted it to be a verbal cue for them. This way they learned that they could only get up from the table (or when they were very small, taken from their high chair), after they heard the words, “You may be excused.” Whenever they would try to stand up in their high chairs or leave the table early, I would put them back in a seated position. They didn’t need to necessarily keep eating, I would give them a toy to keep them occupied if they were finished with food, but they were not allowed up until I said so. This laid the framework for us at restaurants. They knew that once mom put them in a high chair, they were in it until they were told otherwise. I’m not going to say this was an easy process, but to this day after dinner my ten year old asks by rote, “May I be excused?”
After I got the boys accustomed to ‘being excused’, I had to come up with a plan of attack when it came time to take them to a restaurant. This meant an arsenal of rarely seen-before toys, a small cache of finger foods like cheerios or Goldfish and a mind-set that I was going to have to be very active in keeping them seated and entertained. Eventually, I found a rhythm that worked. After we were seated at our table I would alternate toys and finger foods. I would play with them at times and when they got bored with the toys I had on hand, I would search the table for something novel. It could be a coaster (being mindful if it was made of paper that they didn’t eat it), a dessert menu (the ones that flipped were especially fascinating) or anything else that didn’t have sharp edges or could be wielded as a weapon (yes, I’ve seen one too many versions of kung-fu fighting with knives between brothers). There were some occasions that even after doing all this they still were unable to hold it together. At that point, we would call it a night, get our food wrapped up and head home. It’s good to know when to call it. If you wait too long, the ensuing tantrums will extend into the rest of your evening. Even if we only made it out a short time, I took it as a victory.
Taking my boys to restaurants early and often were some of the most challenging hours of my motherhood experience. I’m so grateful I didn’t give up because eventually it turned into a pleasant and peaceful way for our family to have fun and to connect. Now that they are older, I still marvel at how I can take them out and it is enjoyable from start to finish. Hands down, all the power struggles to keep them seated quietly when they were small has been absolutely worth it.
Written by Diana DeVaul, MSW and Parent