When I take my four and five-year old boys to restaurants, I have come to expect some friction with other diners. Such as when my sons gleefully try to top each other with “funny” behavior, playing tether ball with the overhead low-hanging faux-Tiffany light fixture, or licking the tops of the salt and pepper shakers.
In response, I have been lectured, seen elderly women literally shaking their heads at me, or even worse, been stared at in horror for indeterminate periods of time by reserved WASPy families with impeccably well-mannered children, all clutching the sides of their seats in horror.
But we’ve never been in such bad form that a world-famous chef has shamed me on Twitter, and made me the subject of public ridicule across continents. That is why I have loved this week’s Alinea baby story and see why it hit such a nerve, with parents and child-free diners alike. I couldn’t get enough of it. My glee is because it basically it makes my public managing of my kids look competent in comparison.
In that same vein of personal validation, the story inspired a new campaign I am now unveiling here, to lower the bar to other parents on acceptable restaurant behavior.
Since I had kids, my complaint as a diner is not the bad behavior of other children, but the lack of it around me. I’m tired of being in a restaurant where my boys are the only ones having tantrums. In reality, nothing feels more validating than seeing a stranger’s kid shift the focus from us — and flip himself on the floor, kicking and screaming, because the server didn’t put the spaghetti sauce on the side.
But, unfortunately, most parents I have encountered are very aware of other diners’ feelings and offer apologies at the slightest child whimper. This is why, also this week, a Huffington Post story about a mom’s gratitude to a fellow passenger during an airplane trip, went viral. She writes that instead of scowling at her autistic daughter in the next seat as expected, this man actually engaged with her. As a result, desperate parents, hungry for any crumb of validation, have almost lionized this man, elevating him with their Facebook likes to the status of Mother Theresa washing the feet of lepers on a dunghill.
It’s not that I agree with the parents who took their 8-month- year old baby to Alinea, reducing this tony foodie temple to a garden-variety Chuck E Cheese. I agree with Chef Grant Achatz’s tweeted comparison of his restaurant to a theater. If a restaurant passes what I call “the tweezers test,” meaning that someone is using tweezers to arrange each individual pea shoot on top of the fish cheeks at precisely the right angle, all kids under 12 are automatically banned. I am taking my campaign to more earthly everyday restaurants, the kind which costs less than four figures to feed four people.
I know some readers are probably thinking: wouldn’t it be easier if I just managed my kids better? Before I had kids, I had thought that parents with kids misbehaving in public were entitled and self absorbed, just flippantly allowing their kids to run amuck with no regard for anyone else. But now I see that controlling their every move, especially after a whole day with them at home spent constantly policing, is more difficult than one would think. This is even with taking every precaution possible. Now my family’s main requirement for picking a restaurant is where we are likely to enrage to the fewest people. I typically request that we be seated far away from others, even in an empty party room if possible. We go to dinner when restaurants are the least crowded, at early-bird hours so extreme that they would embarrass even the most flinty senior citizen. But no matter how well we plan, because of a series of other demands – like my husband’s or my work going late on a day when there’s slim pickings in the larder –it’s inevitable that once in a while, we land at 7 PM in a crowded pizza place.
So I implore other parents: take those kids out as often as you would like and let them loose. Eighty-six the time outs. Make those kids both seen and heard. Then, at least for me, every public dining experience will become a real Happy Meal.