High-end with half-pints: The do’s and don’ts of dining with kids

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By Chelsea Boulrisse
cboulrisse@kpcmedia.com

Eating out at an upscale restaurant comes with its own set of expectations and social cues. Small children can sometimes have trouble adhering to such requirements, making a family night out to such places a bit more difficult.

Some restaurants have even gone so far as to have a policy that discourages parents from bringing their small children, so as to maintain a desired decorum and atmosphere.

“These days we have to tread this carefully because you don’t know what other people’s response is going to be to your disapproval,” Karen Hickman, a certified etiquette and protocol consultant, said. “I do think restaurants do have the right to say we are not really kid friendly. If you are considering going to a fine-dining situation, you should call ahead to ask what their guidelines are.”

For the most part, though, local fine-dining restaurants do not have policies about small children, believing that customers of all ages should be allowed to experience fine dining.

“We want it to be a family establishment,” Patrick Court, assistant manager at Park Place on Main, said. “We want them to be able to enjoy the evening. It’s a fun experience to see the awe in their eyes when they come in and see the ambiance and atmosphere of it.”

Once the kids are at an appropriate age, 5 or 6 years old per Hickman’s suggestions, parents should be reinforcing good manners and establishing expectations in regards to behavior, and perhaps doing a test run with a shorter outing first.

“When your children start going to school, for instance, take them out for a short meal,” Hickman said. “Ease them into it and see how they do. As they learn how to behave, move them up.”

The key to having a smooth fine-dining experience is preparation. Lessons in manners should start early, with a focus on saying “please” and “thank you,” and learning how to not make a mess. If a child does not demonstrate good manners around the family dinner, Hickman emphasized, taking them to a fancy dining establishment is not going to magically give them manners.

“Every child is different,” Hickman said. “I think a lot of it depends on the parents’ preparation of the child. If your children have never sat down at your home and used silverware, your experience in a fine dining situation might be difficult.”

When the family decides to make the leap and go out for a nice meal at a high-end restaurant, Court encourages parents to order their children’s food early, so that as the evening progresses, the kids are occupied and fed. While most restaurants nowadays offer crayons and other quiet activities to keep kids busy, Hickman added that there is no harm in bringing along a book or other quiet activities. If possible, though, Hickman suggests leaving the iPads and smart phones in the car or in a bag.

“What I do see parents doing often these days is everybody takes an electronic device and the whole family sits there on their electronic devices waiting for food,” Hickman said. “That’s an opportunity to have family time and to talk to your children.”

If plans go awry and the children start getting agitated and forget their manners, the result can be an uncomfortable experience for the parents and other patrons. In an effort to minimize the chaos and avoid annoyed glares from other tables, parents need to step up, perhaps be the “bad guy” and remove the petulant child from the table.

For parents who have an unruly child, especially in fine-dining situations, you may have to consider extracting the child from the restaurant and taking them to the car or maybe the restroom and see if you can get them to calm down, Hickman said.

As for the other diners and wait staff in the restaurant, Hickman and the restaurant staff agree that the other customers are entitled to an enjoyable, uninterrupted dining experience. When a complaint is brought to the attention of a member of the staff, Court said they are happy to accommodate.

“I would please them instead of uprooting the whole family because that does happen,” Court said. “We would move (the diners) to make their experience better, perhaps into the bar where no kids are and make it quieter.”

Sometimes, Hickman noted, there are times when the kids should stay home with a sitter, namely when the outing is later in the evening or is expected to last a few hours. Other than that, she believes exposing kids to new and more sophisticated dining experiences is a good way to reinforce the importance of manners and how to behave in different social situations.

“I’m not opposed to children being taken out to a high-end restaurant,” Hickman said. “That’s how they learn to manage themselves. But do it when it’s age appropriate. Children are never going to learn how to behave unless they have those experiences.”

This story originally appeared in Summit City Eats.