Many parents struggle with the behavior patterns of their children when they are out in public. They come to Dr. Jacob Boney, owner and clinical director of Scottsdale Pediatric Behavioral Services, seeking guidance on what to do to help their children behave better in public places, especially in restaurants.
The number one thing that Dr. Boney recommends is that you have to specify the behavior that you expect from them. Time after time, when he has asked the children of his clients what is expected of them by their parents when they are in a restaurant, he has gotten the response, “I don’t know.” It’s hard to get the behavior you want if your child isn’t clear about what is expected. You can set rules as simple as:
- Stay in your seat
- Keep your hands to yourself
- Talk only when Mom or Dad talk to you first or when we aren’t talking
The rules need to be simple enough that the child can repeat them back to you. They should also be easy to enforce and keep track of.
Appropriate behavior in a restaurant is a skill that needs to be practiced at home. If the child never sits at the table and eats a meal at home, there is no reason to expect this to be a successful experience in public. A realistic expectation is that what your child does at home is likely to be what will transfer and be generalized in public.
When you are in public, be sure and praise and reinforce the good behaviors. Notice and comment on even the smallest behavior that you are looking for. This could be sitting quietly or using the right level and tone of voice. You are going to get the behaviors that you reinforce and by consistently noticing and commenting on them you are going to make them more important.
Because it is unrealistic to believe that children will all of a sudden just be able to sit quietly doing nothing, be prepared by bringing appropriate activities to the restaurant. This can be anything from electronic devices to coloring books or some sort of puzzle. Just make sure they are not disruptive to others and fit the environment. It can make life easier to have activities that can be taken to multiple types of places. Bring several items that can be rotated, and only allow access to one at a time.
Parents can avoid the majority of issues by predicting the child’s needs and requests before they come up. Make a plan and discuss it in advance with the child. If the child is likely to get restless and start moving items like silverware around, give them a snack or small puzzle to focus on instead. When the food comes, ask for a small plate and put on it only the amount that you expect the child to eat. Be proactive and anticipate needs to help your child be successful and reward good behavior by giving access to a favorite activity or toy.
An even better technique is to train your child to be independent. Practice at home. Even young children can quickly learn to use utensils, cut their own food and eat their meal. The best thing a parent can do is to transfer control of behaviors to the child as soon as possible.
Know your child. It’s harder for some children to sit quietly than it is for others. Take them to the park or swimming or some other activity so that they will have done something to help use up that excess energy before taking them to a restaurant. It’s also important that the child is motivated to eat by making sure they are hungry and that there is food on the menu that they will like.
Include your child in the conversation or engage in appropriate activities, depending upon the child’s age. This is a learning experience where they are being taught how to interact socially at mealtime. Discuss topics that will interest them. Have them sit by people they like and have something in common with. By giving attention preemptively, you make your child not need to engage in undesirable behavior to get attention. Make this an experience that they enjoy as you start shaping these social behaviors that they will be using for the rest of their lives.
Utilizing evidence based practices and the scientific principles of Applied Behavior Analysis, the Scottsdale Pediatric Behavioral Services team provides assessment, treatment and consultation for a wide range of behavioral issues. We work with a variety of children, families, schools, hospitals, mental health agencies and local community organizations to provide these services. If you have any questions about parenting in public or would like more information about any of the services offered by our team, please feel free to contact us by phone at 480.410.4040, email us at [email protected], or click here for our convenient online form.