Just in Time for the Holidays: Practical Tips for Inspiring Your Child’s Best Behavior

Written by Christy Whitman November 11, 2012

Most people are shocked to learn that our boys – Maxim, age two, and Alex, age three-and- half – absolutely LOVE going to restaurants. In fact, if we haven’t been out in awhile, Alex is usually the first to suggest it! Virtually every time we take the boys out to eat, complete strangers will stop by our table to comment on how well behaved they are. In talking with other parents, I discovered that most toddlers view the prospect of going to a restaurant as if it were a prison sentence: Ninety minutes of lock-down at a small table, in a place with stringent rules of conduct, where noise levels must be kept to a bare minimum. Under these circumstances, even normally well-behaved kids can spiral into whining, yelling, or throwing temper tantrums.

Since the holidays are quickly approaching and many of us will soon find ourselves traveling and eating out more often than usual, I thought I’d share some of the practical tips Frederic and I have developed to support our boys in being on their best behavior; not just at home, but in public as well.

The moment I know we are going to a public place – to a restaurant, for example – I pack a bag with a different variety of little items like matchbox cars, crayons, paper, play dough, Cheerios or another light snack, and straws. On the way to our destination, we remind the boys that we are going into a public place, and that our expectation is that they will listen to us, keep their voices down, and eat their food without a fuss. When we get to the table, I then take out their cars and a handful of straws for each of them and ask them to “build” us something out of the items we’ve brought along. Usually, Alex connects several straws together to make a road, which Maxim eagerly travels in his matchbox car. While the boys are happily engaged, Frederic and I have a chance to relax, catch up with one another, laugh about things that happened that day, and talk about upcoming plans and events.

Key to this strategy, of course, is maintaining a connection with the boys and remaining mindful about interacting with them before they start making plays to get our attention. “Nice road!” Frederic might say. “I wonder if you could make it go over the mountain of this salt shaker…” Sometimes they will tell us that it’s our turn to build something for them, and will watch with interest as we construct a “garage” out of straws where they can park their cars. These little interactions spark a lot of laughter and yet more creative ideas – and soon the boys are off and running once again on their own.

One important distinction is that engaging a child’s attention with little games like these is vastly different from simply plugging them into an iPad or a video game. The first teaches them how to manage their attention; the second is merely a distraction that will eventually wear thin and leave the child even less equipped to interact in an appropriate way in social situations.

As the holidays approach and you find yourself planning outings that you know in advance will require your attention to be focused not exclusively upon your kids, I encourage you to give these practical tips a try. Every family is unique; what works for us may not work for you. What’s important is to take into consideration the unique interests, energy level and attention span of each child, and plan accordingly. With a little insight and forethought, restaurants, long car rides, and even cross-country flights can become highly anticipated family experiences.

Happy holidays!

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