The menu of a restaurant in Georgia, US, called the Toccoa Riverside, has recently gone viral — and it has nothing to do with the food that they serve.
Tucked beneath the descriptions and prices for a variety of steaks, seafood, pastas and salads, printed just above the WiFi network name and password, comes an ominous warning to any patrons accompanied by children. Aside from adding gratuity to parties of 6 or more, the restaurant states that there will be an “Adult surcharge: For adults unable to parent $$$.”
Although the amount of the surcharge isn’t mentioned on the menu itself, several Yelp reviewers mention $50, with one saying they heard the restaurant owner threatening to charge guests this amount. (The Toccoa Riverside did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.)
Is the restaurant, which accommodates guests with an outdoor “pooch patio” so they can dine with their dogs, being unreasonable? How much responsibility do parents bear for their children’s behaviour in public places, such as restaurants and airplanes? If parents are to be punished for their kids’ behaviour, who decides which behaviours merit censure? And are expectations the same for children of all ages?
Etiquette experts weigh in
Cara Goodwin, a child psychologist, told HuffPost, “I don’t think this is fair because everyone has different perceptions of children’s behaviours. Parents of young children become accustomed to children being loud and active since this is typical behavior for children.”
In addition, Goodwin said, “Parents only have so much control over the child, even when they are setting consistent limits and providing logical consequences for behavior.”
Diane Gottsman, an etiquette expert, told HuffPost, “It’s not fair to expect a child to behave any other way than age appropriate.”
“A 2-year-old cannot behave like a 10-year-old,” she said.
Thomas P. Farley, etiquette expert and NBC Today “Mealtime with Mister Manners” columnist, was sympathetic to the restaurant wanting to provide a relaxing ambience for all guests, but believes there are better ways for an establishment to handle unruly behavior by patrons of any age.
“A fee ― or a threat of one ― is a poor solution to this potentially delicate dilemma,” Farley said.
If “children are acting unruly, I would not threaten a punitive fee but would instead have the manager or owner approach the table and have a gentle word with the parents, requesting they keep a closer watch on their children and setting any needed boundaries,” he continued. Another option would be “offering to reseat them in a less central part of the restaurant.”
For families with young children who enjoy dining out, or perhaps need to when traveling, here are some things to keep in mind.
Know the restaurant
What’s acceptable at one establishment might be frowned on at another.
Lizzie Post, co-president of the Emily Post Institute (as well as Emily Post’s great-great-granddaughter), suggested that families ask themselves, “What type of restaurant are we talking about?”
A restaurant that has a play area, crayons and a kid’s menu is likely a safer choice than a white tablecloth establishment if your kids are going to need to get up from the table and move their legs throughout the meal. These days, a quick internet search can usually tell you if a place is child-friendly.
Post mentioned that a restaurant she visits states at the bottom of its menu: “Unruly children will be given three espressos and a pony.” This, she said, is a lighter way for the establishment to set “the expectation that we are trying to create a more grown-up environment here.”
With a more formal setting, “Until they can participate in that way at home, to do it out in public isn’t really even fair to the kids,” Post said.
Know your kid
There is no one age at which children become universally equipped to handle a formal dining experience. You know your child’s maturity level, temperament and any special needs that they may have, and you are the best judge of when they’re ready. “Know your kids’ abilities and put them in situations where they’re going to succeed,” Post said.
“Can they handle going in and sitting down for half hour to an hour or more, and engaging?”
Parents also need to assess how ready their children are at that moment for a restaurant experience.
“Don’t ignore where your child is at right now. Be realistic,” Post said.
“A kid who hasn’t had a nap and is basically on the verge of meltdown” isn’t going to be able to handle the demands of a restaurant as well as a contentedly well-rested child.
It’s the parents’ job to assess and determine if another option — perhaps take out? — is necessary on this particular day.
Prepare and practice
While parents can’t control their child’s behavior at all times, they are indeed responsible for teaching them how to act in public.
Letting kids know what behavior expectations are ahead of time (i.e., no getting up from the table, or waiting until everyone else has been served to take a bite) always helps, but children need time and multiple opportunities to practice these behaviors.
Perhaps you remember being instructed as a child to “mind your manners.”
“When I was a child, before exiting the car or entering a store or someone’s home, my mom would remind us of our manners,” Jackie Vernon Thompson of the Inside-Out School of Etiquette, told HuffPost.
“Other times, that one look said it all,” she continued.
“The teaching of proper behavior doesn’t begin at the doorway of a restaurant or a friend’s house, it begins at home. It must be consistent so that when out in public with your child, the behaviors taught at home will manifest,” Vernon Thompson added.
Good manners may start at home, but, ultimately, the only way for children to learn how to behave in restaurants is to actually bring them to restaurants.
“It’s incredibly valuable for kids to have experiences outside the home when it comes to dining,” Post said.
She noted that she sometimes hears from people who don’t experience their first formal meal until adulthood, at which point they find themselves at a business meeting or other high-stakes occasion.
Children should have learning opportunities to practice their manners — but parents will need to make this learning explicit.
Post suggested letting kids know what to expect beforehand, telling them, for example, that they won’t be getting up from the table and discussing how you all will pass the time waiting for the food, such as by playing a word game or drawing pictures, if appropriate.
Engage your child
Going out to a restaurant without children is a treat you give yourself — having another person prepare and serve your food. But when children are in tow, dinner out is not a night off. You’re also providing a service by supervising your child. It can be helpful to adjust your expectations beforehand.
“Engaging your child is your best bet for not having them be disruptive towards others,” Post said.
Children are often excited about telling the waiter their order, and it’s a way to keep them engaged in the process. You should also model, and gently remind them if necessary, placing the napkin in their lap, using silverware and chewing with their mouth closed.
“Praise and notice any positive behavior you see. This will further encourage this behavior to happen more in the future,” Goodwin said.
You will need to continue to engage your child throughout the meal by including them in the conversation. This may mean letting them choose the topic, and forgoing separate conversations with other adults present.
“Parents who are just talking to each other and ignoring their kids are just absolutely setting that kid up to just go off and have a moment, publicly,” Post warned.
Sometimes it’s OK to use screens
Of course, we all have at our disposal at least one device capable of successfully pacifying our children, whether they’re stuck on an airplane or waiting for their chicken nuggets. How often to pull out the iPad or hand over your phone is a decision that each family has to make for themselves on an ongoing basis.
“Parents often feel like they can’t win. If they use phones/iPads to keep their child quiet in public, they are judged for overusing screen time, and if they don’t use technology, they are judged for their children’s behaviour,” said Goodwin.
She said that there are unlikely to be negative effects of occasional screen time, so parents shouldn’t feel guilty for sometimes using screens “as a tool from time to time to enjoy a meal at a restaurant.” Neither, she continued, should they “feel compelled to use screens in any public place in order to prevent normal child behaviour.”
Different occasions may call for different solutions. While your child won’t learn how to make conversation while awaiting their food unless you provide them with opportunities to do so, there may be moments when you need a moment to talk with another adult. You have to find a balance.
“I have been grateful for every friend who has brought a device to a meal that they brought their kids to, because we really did get a chance to talk,” Post said. In these cases, she noted, “The kids were engaged in the meal for a bit, and then when their attention was really waning, that’s when we would turn to a device.”
You will also have different expectations for different ages. “If we are talking about pre-teens who are bored and want to scroll TikTok during dinner, I would not approve,” said Farley. “They know better, and the phones should be put away.”
“If we are talking about toddlers, if a device is keeping them content and seated, I have no objection — provided the tablet, video game or phone is not playing loudly enough for others nearby to hear,” he added.
Post recommended using headphones if the child is watching videos or playing games that involve sound, as well as keeping the device low to the table or in the child’s lap.
Know when to leave
Just as you need to judge whether your child is ready to attempt a restaurant outing, you’ll need to make the call when it’s time to go — with the understanding that kids are unpredictable, and you might have to leave in the middle of the meal.
“If your child misbehaves in the restaurant, perhaps a walk outside for a few minutes will help,” said Vernon Thompson. “If they are crying or just agitated, again, a talk and walk outside may be the trick.”
“If the child persists and just will not listen to the requests of the parents and is disturbing, perhaps the only option is to leave the restaurant,” she continued.
Post mentioned food-throwing as one place to draw the line. If there’s any danger of a flying meatball, it’s time to go.
In terms of the mess that kids leave, Post said, “The more formal the restaurant, the more you’re going to let the staff handle it.” Cleaning up spills on the table and blotting with napkins as best you can is helpful, but she cautioned against picking anything off the floor and bringing it back onto the table, as this might “gross out other patrons.”
While “we try not to have money solve etiquette problems,” Post said, you can leave a bigger tip if you feel the service warranted it. She also recommended a sincere acknowledgement and apology, such as, “I’m really sorry that we are leaving you such a mess. I really appreciate you taking care of us tonight.”