When we first moved to Japan Emi was 8 months old and I was 3 months pregnant with Misaki. We had decided that it would be best to live with Chikara's parents for the first few months until we could get settled. That turned out to be a good decision for more reasons than one. Yes, it helped us save money but it also gave my in-laws a close look at how we raise our children and kind of cleared the air on a number of issues. One of those issues was how we expected our children to behave in restaurants.
I can vividly remember a time when Emi was around 11 months and we went out for dinner at a nabe restaurant. You know, the restaurant with a gas burner in the middle of the table for the pot to rest on. Sigh... it sounded so yummy but I forgot that it takes awhile for the meal to be ready to eat and once it was ready Emi ate quickly and then she was bored waiting for the rest of us to eat. She was sitting in her car seat but soon she had turned to screaming and squirming and I couldn't calm her down. My MIL offered to take her for a walk around the restaurant. I wanted to say no because really I wanted to train our kids to sit through meals but I was tired so I said OK. The two of them walked right to the front of the restaurant to the little toy stand that all restaurants have. Within five minutes my MIL was back for her purse and she bought Emi a little plastic toy. Emi played with that toy for all of 1 minute before she got fussy again. Fortunately by this time we were almost done with dinner so I just held Emi and sang to her until it was time to go. On the way home I remember thinking that dinner hadn't gone too badly.
A few weeks later we went out for dinner again with my in-laws and sure enough halfway through the meal Emi was done and bored but this time she turned immediately to my MIL. She expected to be taken for a walk. Right then I had a moment of clarity. If I let Emi go then she will never learn to sit down through a meal and then the next baby (in my tummy) will not sit through a meal and the next baby that we plan to have shortly after her will never do it either. I will never want to go out for dinner because it's going to be a huge pain which means I'll always have to cook dinner. It was so clear to me it was almost like I was *in* that awful moment. So I said no to my MIL (which did not go over well) and started rummaging through my bag for something to entertain Emi. It was a lot of work on my part that evening but she did sit through the rest of the meal in a relatively calm manner although I sang "Itsy-Bitsy Spider" about a million times.
Now, I am not so far removed from reality to know that it is a lot to expect a one-year-old to sit through a 30-40 minute dinner. But I also know that I've got to start somewhere. After that dinner, I went back to the parenting books I own and called my sister-in-law and my mother to try and get some advice regarding how to go about this. After about a week I had a plan but I didn't get to use it until a few months later after Misaki was born. Chikara's parents took us out for dinner at a new restaurant we hadn't been to before. Misaki was only a couple of months old and slept through the meal but Emi was almost a year and a half and started getting bored about halfway through. I saw my MIL moving to get her so I politely said that it wasn't necessary and whisked Emi to the bathroom. I quietly told Emi that it was time to eat and that I wanted her to sit down and be happy. She said "Yes, Mommy" and we went back and sat down. I handed her a piece of bread and a toy and she sat happily and ate the bread and played with the toy. About five minutes later my in-laws asked Chikara what I had done. Had I spanked her? They weren't appalled but they were shocked by the change in her behavior in such a short time (we were only gone for a minute). So I told them what I done and everyone seemed in shock. In fact, we were all silent and happy for the rest of the meal.
Yes, there have been times where my kids have had a meltdown in a restaurant or just wouldn't cooperate. You know those days where dinner out comes at the end of a long outing or they're teething or are beginning to get sick. We've had those days, too, but in general our children know that we expect them to sit and behave and if they don't then they will have to go with me to the bathroom for a talking to. Actually I'm surprised myself that this works. I think I've only had to give a spanking once or twice at a restaurant but that was to a 3-year-old who was just outright disobeying. Mostly a little talk takes care of it. Of course we follow this up by expecting the same behavior at home and that they follow other rules as well. I think that removing them from the situation and receiving clarification from me about what is expected is what does the trick.
Flash forward six years and we still use the same procedure. On Monday night we went out to ramen for dinner. It's a restuarant we go to often so the girls know what to expect but Natsuki is the one who now needs the constant reminding. After we sat down, our waitress brought us our water and Chikara ordered our food. This restaurant just got new plastic cups with handles for the kids so Natsuki can drink by herself except that she was having a hard time so when I reached over to turn her cup around for her she flipped out because she didn't want me to touch the cup. I handed it back to her but she had already decided she was going to be mad. There were only 3 other people in the restaurant (we were having an early dinner) so I decided this was as good a time as any to let her realize that crying doesn't get her what she wants. Once she realized I wasn't going to do anything she quickly turned from crying to angry screaming so I picked her up and off we went to the bathroom. I've done this with her a few times before so it was cute to see her cry on my shoulder for 15 seconds and then look at my face to await her instructions. Seriously, she knew I was going to tell her something. I said that screaming is "no-no" and that now was time to eat and be happy (words she knows). She repeated "eat" and "happy" and then "OK" and I hugged her and then we went out. She sat right in her seat (the kind that attaches to the table) and she was all happy. I handed her back her cup and she was all smiles. As I turned to go sit down I noticed that Emi, who was sitting beside Natsuki, was straddling the bench instead of sitting up to the table so I told her to turn around. What does she do? She swings her leg over and smashes Natsuki's hand into the table. Why me? Of course Natsuki burst into tears again and Emi got all defensive ("What? You told me to do it"). Just as I was trying to decide what to do the food came. Yeah! Emi said sorry and Natsuki went back to saying "eat, eat, eat" and soon we were back on track.
We enjoyed a lovely meal together and I thought to myself that this is why I said no to my MIL six year ago. You know, so that I don't have to cook all the time!
*** I should also mention that we also try to make dinnertime with our kids a lot of fun. We really encourage sharing about what they did or what they've been thinking about lately. It's a good time for all of us to focus on each other and for the girls to listen to each other. I realized as I re-read my post that someone might get the idea that the kids sit silently around the table while we watch them waiting for a hint of bad behavior. Totally not the case.