Managing the Mayhem (originally entitled: “Children Should be Seen, But Not Heard: Toddler Etiquette in Public”) -Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx/Riverdale and Staten Island Family

When my children were toddlers and elderly neighbors would greet us in the elevator, my son would confidently answer “hello” with a smile. My daughter was the one who would grab onto me before responding timidly. Granted, some children are more reserved, but I always thought it was important that my children knew how to interact socially at a young age. Little did I realize that the skills I was teaching them, starting at the age of 2, would be invaluable life tools.

Children often follow a parent’s lead. Savvy parents are aware of that, and as they greet neighbors, relatives or friends, they model this skill for uninitiated toddlers. Still, not all toddlers are willing to conform. When a child hesitates to greet someone she knows, I give more credit to the parent who tries desperately to goad the recalcitrant child into responding civilly than to the parent who cavalierly gives up and accepts the child’s refusal to respond, quickly dismissing the child’s silence with an excuse.

Once these children are old enough to walk around unaccompanied, they are often the ones who stare at you blankly when you greet them in passing, knowing full well who you are.

Lyudmila Bloch, international etiquette expert and author of “The Golden Rules of Etiquette at The Plaza,” is not accepting of parental apologies. She believes that toddlers should be capable of a civil greeting, despite their parents’ claims that the child is tired, in a bad mood, or painfully shy. She told me that it is a matter of “self-regulation,” and that even a very shy child can overcome his shyness.

She does not believe that it is ever the child’s fault for failing to respond to a greeting, stating that “the parents are 100 percent responsible for their child’s behavior: there are no ‘bad children.’ ”

Helayne Cohen, director of the Early Childhood Center at Temple Beth Sholom in Roslyn Heights, Long Island, holds a master’s degree in Early Childhood Leadership and Advocacy, and takes issue with the word “shy” to describe a 2 year old, questioning whether or not a 2 year old can actually be shy. She believes that it is “a matter of temperament” and that “sometimes the parents need to wait a little.” Still, she says she would encourage parents to model proper behavior for their child, be aware that “there is a readiness factor,” and work with a child, once he is ready.

“[Learning] proper manners starts at home,” she says. She agrees that teaching young children how to properly interact in social situations is an important and valuable life skill, and that even 2 year olds can learn to properly greet others. “[They] are so impressionable, [and can often learn this skill] if the directions are stated [simply], using a two word command.”

Restaurant manners

When my relatives came to New York with their young child, they were wary about heading into a restaurant, lest their active son disturb others. Unfortunately, this awareness and consideration for others is not shared by all parents. I assured my cousins that I would select a family-friendly venue, and my insightful cousin knew to bring small toys as a distraction for her son. It is important to know your child and know how long he can remain somewhat subdued in a public setting.

That is not to say that young children need to remain totally silent in public at all times. A friend of mine used to comment the moment a young child let out a yelp in public, as if the parents should have been incarcerated immediately for permitting any noise. That friend had long forgotten what it was like to be the parent of a young child.

Still, many diners can probably recall the not-unfamiliar sight of parents engrossed in adult conversation while their toddlers continue to scream at an unbelievably high decibel level. Some mothers seem so desperate to engage in adult conversation that they tune out their children, as they are tired of being interrupted, and crave adult socialization. At the same time, their children are desperately vying for their attention and creating an unpleasant dining experience for everyone else.

Both Bloch and Cohen stress the importance of preparing children for a restaurant experience. This may involve working with your child so that he is ready for the experience.

“[Young children] cannot share a public space if you did not teach them about [proper] behavior,” explains Bloch. She recommends doing a rehearsal at home, purchasing little utensils and seating your child at a small table where he can eat and rehearse good table manners. As the child progresses, he can practice at the big table with adults.

Bloch reminds parents to praise the child as he learns to hold and use each utensil properly and manage his cup and napkin. The teachers in Cohen’s Early Childhood Center have the children practice using “restaurant voices” when they eat lunch at school. She tells me that a lot of positive modeling takes place in preschool, as well.

Bloch points out that the parent’s physical proximity to the toddler in the restaurant is key and that preparedness includes providing diversions to keep your toddler “as busy as possible.” Cohen advises parents to bring “an arsenal of stuff.”

I, personally, always went to restaurants with a bag full of surprises, from a tabletop puppet stage with a wide array of puppets, to a small, snap-together train track, and a wind-up plastic train.

Of course, experts agree that if all else fails, and the child’s behavior continues to be disruptive to other diners, then the parent needs to remove the child from the environment.

Shopping etiquette

Young children have always demanded instant gratification. Stores provide them with lots of stimulation, and they are often vocal about things they want. Many parents prefer not to disappoint their little darling by saying “no,” so they appease their demands and rip open everything from Hot Wheels to Cheez Doodles, leaving food remnants and toy parts in their wake on the way to the register.

Not only does Bloch warn that opening merchandise before paying is modeling poor behavior, but these parents are depriving their children of some critical skills. These children are not learning any coping skills, nor understanding that they sometimes need to wait. According to Bloch, these children are used to getting whatever they want, and as they get older, it becomes problematic when their demands are not immediately satisfied.

Even near the register, impulse items beckon the youngest shoppers. Cohen advises parents that use the opportunity to teach their young children about choices, instead of acquiescing to every plea, perhaps even causing the parent to buy something she would not otherwise buy. She also believes that parents should enter stores armed with small treats and toys, in case their toddler gets hungry or bored.

Life skills

Bloch told me that the social skills needed to properly interact with others and navigate the world are “taught in incremental steps from [age] 2 to 22.” Basic skills, including coping skills and patience, taught by creating boundaries for young children, will serve these children well throughout their lives.

“Once [they] know the rules, [they] develop confidence and self-esteem,” she adds. We are, in essence, empowering them by acquainting them with basic social conventions and fostering the creation of essential interpersonal communication skills.

Parenting requires a certain amount of work. Bloch says “[it’s] all about effort” and insisting on good behavior. Although some children need more attention and guidance than others, a minimum amount of effort is necessary to teach them how to interact in our world. It is a parent’s job to prepare them for eventual adulthood, and teach them proper manners and social skills from the time they are young, as an investment in their future.

Risa C. Doherty is an attorney and freelance writer. She was honored in 2011 with a Silver Investigative Reporting Award from Parenting Publications of America (now known as Parenting Media Association).

Copyright 2012 by Risa C. Doherty


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