I remember when my oldest son was 2 or 3 years old and we went out to eat, I regularly ended up on the sidewalk with my restless child while the rest of the group enjoyed their food inside the restaurant. As dessert came, I (or whoever volunteered to be the sidewalk babysitter that night) would come in and quickly eat the main course. Soon enough, my son outgrew that stage and eating out became fun again. The lesson here is counter-intuitive: restless kids need to be taken out more often, not less often.
Perhaps parents should assume that each child has X number of ‘bad outings’ encoded on their DNA and the quicker you get through those the sooner you can get on to the good stuff. Too often, I believe, parents suffer through a couple of bad outings and then give up on going out to avoid further trouble. This path of least resistance, I think, can become a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby the unwillingness to take kids into public only makes it more likely those kids will misbehave.
That’s why when I see screaming kids being dragged home by their parents, I assume those aren’t bad kids. I figure they just don’t get out enough, and such cooped up children are reluctant to go home because they don’t know how long they must wait to go out again.
So what can you do to train your kids to conduct themselves in public? Here I take a page out of my father’s book. I’ve seen him explain to my children in adult words what he expects of them before we leave the house. He says, “We are going to the toy store but we’re not going to buy anything. Do you understand?” or “We’re going to eat dinner and you’re going to get mac and cheese and french fries and I need you to be a good girl, okay?” With practice, your child’s behavior should improve.
It is well worth it. Going out is one of those things you as a parent need to do to keep your sanity, so don’t give up. As my wife says, “Child rearing is sometimes more about training the parents than teaching the kids.”