Teach Your Children

Posted: Dec 28, 2009 12:00 AM

Rampant discussion swirls through our society as to whether or not there has been a degradation of cultural values. The question of whether civility has been sacrificed to the altars of personal convenience and “non-judgmentalism” concerns many Americans who are entrusted to pass this value to future generations. If you want to see the struggle in its full majesty, enter one of our modern theatres of community interaction – the family restaurant.

Since the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s, the family restaurant has become a center of shared communality. There may be other places, but nothing allows multiple generations to interact across cultural and economic levels quite like a moderately-priced local restaurant. Unfortunately, the rules of civil behavior seem to be disintegrating before our very eyes. This devolution has manifested itself through our children.

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It has become apparent that while today’s parents want to take their children to restaurants, they are often unwilling to instruct their kids how to properly behave in this public forum. It used to be that children would go to a restaurant and stay in their seats. If a child started to misbehave, one parent would take the youngster out of the restaurant until he (or she) settled down. Regrettably, that no longer appears to be standard behavior.

After observing frequent occurrences of children aimlessly walking, climbing over the back of seats and generally disrupting other diners’ peaceful enjoyment of their meals, it was time to consult the professionals and see if standards had really changed.

I started with the servers, and the large majority stated that they had observed a significant change in how parents control their children. Their general impression was that standards have slipped substantially, and they often feel frustrated and helpless as they watch parents allowing their kids to run rampant. Servers must often move through small spaces while carrying large food platters. They prefer – if only for everyone’s safety – that patrons stay out of their pathways. They are reluctant to confront parents because they’re concerned both about what management might say as well as the impact on their tips (which are often a significant portion of their compensation). So they leave the matter to management.

Management feels a little less helpless, but not much. One restaurant manager with 30 years in the industry described how basic manners have deteriorated in the past 15 years. Children, she said, frequently disrupt restaurant operations and the parents too often are unwilling to rein in their behavior. Managers, she continued, were in a difficult position because people don’t like to be told how to raise their kids. If the manager confronts the parent, they risk losing a loyal customer. But if they don’t, it’s the other patrons who start to get upset.

That sometimes leaves it to the customers themselves to make comments. Occasionally this occurs and a war can break out. One manager stated that she recently had to break up an argument between a regular customer seeking a peaceful meal and another patron unwilling to control their child. The manager had to arbitrate the dispute knowing that one of the customers would probably be lost for good. A choice had to be made and, unfortunately, the real loser was the restaurant.

This manager suggested that perhaps this was regional behavior, principally related to the loose interpretation of proper parenting often found in Southern California. But when the same question was asked of restaurant employees around the country, it was found that sadly, the manager was incorrect – in fact, bad behavior appears to be occurring everywhere. Parents appear increasingly unwilling to rope in their children, and fellow patrons are suffering the effects.

The importance of this is larger than one might first perceive. Children have often misbehaved at home, but parents would always make sure they respected others in a public forum. Last week, a friend related a story about his own children. He was told how well-behaved his kids were by someone who saw them frequently. The man replied that he wished they acted that nicely at home. But he didn’t really understand the larger issue – all children are challenging at home, but it’s most important how they act in public environments.

If children of today aren’t given any guidance about proper behavior in public, what will be their guideposts when they get older? How will they act when they go away to college or move away from home? If they aren’t taught by their parents that being considerate of others in public forums is essential behavior for a civil society, where and when will they learn?

Graham Nash wrote a song called “Teach Your Children” that had a different focus, but I suspect he would not have thought that our society would be faced with such basic challenges as controlling young children in public. If we cannot accomplish this as a society, where are we headed?