Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Deep fried disgrace

Now that the Grape is four, he knows how to behave in restaurants. So I tell myself. I must be delusional.

It's not like we haven't had loads of practice. The kid knows how to behave. He sometimes chooses not to. 

An urban kid, the Grape has dined out about once a week for his whole life. He's a pro who knows the drill. He's bungled through Michelin rated dinners* without serious incident. He's charmed proprietors and gotten himself invited to meet chefs and view kitchens. Strangers have—more than once—crossed crowded dining rooms to compliment me on my son's behavior. He even has a regular table, a favorite waiter, and a usual order at the best Italian place in our hood.

All of this makes the parental humiliation exponentially more acute when he leaves an ordinary lunch date in disgrace. Pride, they say, goes before the fall.

Today the Grape and I went on a spontaneous lunch date with a friend and her son, who's about a year the Grape's junior. We walked into a new neighborhood spot, a casual bar and grill that opened last week. They're still getting the kinks out, and so it seems, is the Grape.

He's rarely the oldest kid around, so maybe he seized too enthusiastically on the opportunity to show off. His friend, who's small for his age and can still get away with baby behavior in the eyes of strangers, found his antics hysterical. 

But still, blowing milk through his straw at me, and the table, and his friend, crosses  gallops over the line into unacceptable territory. His three-year-old friend, for what it's worth, found the stunt hilarious, and mimicked the Grape's abysmal manners with no small amount of glee.

The sanguine, unflappable child rearing experts say that the parent must remain calm in the face of unwelcome behavior. 

Fine. I didn't lose my cool just because the Grape was spewing his drink all over the establishment, and cackling with delight while doing so. 

I did start wishing that we'd come in at early dinner hour instead of at lunch. Maybe if the other patrons were loaded, they wouldn't notice my maniacal little monster.

I issued a stern warning. The Grape ignored me. His friend laughed. I told the Grape he was going to get a consequence if he didn't stop this instant. Milk flew into my face again and sprayed all over the gleaming new table. 

I asked myself, as sort of a gut check, "Would my own mother have put up with this behavior? This utter meltdown of discipline?"

I took the milk and straw away.

The Grape howled like I was stabbing him repeatedly with my fork. He kicked and flailed and screamed, and lurched onto the table as if afflicted with a rare seizure disorder. In retrospect, I'm surprised nobody called 9-1-1.

His little friend continued playing with his own drink and straw in a display of preschool solidarity. His mom started pleading with him for better behavior, in a sort of desperate but earnest stage whisper.

The waitstaff, including two trainees who had no job on the lunch shift other than to shadow their experienced colleagues, stopped and stared. I could see what they were thinking, as clearly as if they'd have cartoon conversation balloons floating over their collective heads. It's the same thing all those so-called experts would ask:

Isn't he too old for tantrums?

Of course he's too old for tantrums. He doesn't have them at home, and they're not toddler tantrums in the sense that he hasn't lost control of his emotions, nor is he frustrated because he cannot express himself clearly. Whatever his faults, the Grape doesn't struggle with verbal expression.

The Grape's tantrums constitute the most powerful weapon in his four-year-old arsenal—a nuclear option he deploys only when he really wants to dig in.

How can I be sure? They never happen at home, no matter how tired and/or frustrated the Grape gets, and they never happen without a large public audience. He plays his big scenes for sellout crowds only.

The four-year-old tantrum exists to let everyone within a half-mile radius know that I've lost control.

The experts say thou shalt not give in to tantrums. I challenge any one of those experts to sit in a fairly busy restaurant—even a casual one without tablecloths and with highchairs—and ignore a medium-small child throwing his thirty-four pounds around the banquette while shrieking at the top of his lungs that he wants milk.

A jumble of thoughts flew through my mind:

Shouldn't bars have loud music to drown out disturbances? Is it too late to order a stiff drink? Remind me again why smacking your offspring is illegal? 

I dragged the Grape's flailing form outside as our order arrived. The tantrum stopped the second we stepped out of view of the hostess stand. I gave him a speech about table manners and indoor voices, told him he'd lost his play date for the afternoon and his beloved Finnish troll videos for the rest of the week, and asked if he was going to be good if we went back inside. He blinked at me through big weepy eyes, stuck out his chin, and said no.

Why do I think he said no? I suspect he called my bluff. He knows we can't leave a restaurant without paying, and my handbag was still on that back banquette.

We marched down the gauntlet of judgmental bystanders and I made the Grape apologize to the busboy—the nearest available adult in a uniform—for good measure. He ate his food with his napkin on his head like a pirate hat—a stunt immediately duplicated by the little friend. He squirmed but held it together long enough for my friend and me to scarf our food. 

Lessons learned today: 1. Never claim your kid is good in restaurants. 2. Never, ever let anyone issue him, or anyone at the table, a straw. 3. Try to eat in restaurants far away from your residence so you never need to see the waitstaff or other customers again. A block is not remote enough.

* I didn't voluntarily bring my kid to a Michelin restaurant. I would never attempt that because I believe, at certain establishments, people are paying a lot of money for ambiance that should not include even the best-behaved child. We were someone's guests at the time of the Grape's two Michelin visits.


  1. I've sort of given up on restaurants other than Chipotle. We have four though. It's impossible!

    1. I hear you. We frequent Chipotle type places, too. There could be a whole separate blog post about how he's always angelic in fast food joints.

  2. I have TONS of sympathy and respect for you in this situation, not just because of how you handled it, but because you did handle it. You get it. You're teaching your child how to behave in restaurants, and he kind of blew it one day, and you recognized that. It can happen to anyone.

    What drives me crazy is when parents don't have any sense of context and behavior at all and let their kids run wild. I spent dinner in a restaurant a couple of weeks ago with someone else's kid under my chair. I never even figured out who her parents were!

    1. A good friend of mine summed up dining out with kids this way: 20% of the outings, they amaze you with excellent behavior, 20% of the time it's a total disaster (as here), and 60% of the time you mumble through it and are just happy you don't need to procure, cook or do dishes.