Crucial Skills®

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How to Get Your Kids to Behave without Threatening Them

Dear Crucial Skills,

How do you get your kids to behave in restaurants when they won’t listen without resorting to spanking or threats of physical abuse?


Dear Tempted,

Whether someone has children or not, I think almost all of us can relate to the near universal frustration that comes when someone else isn’t behaving the way we want them to behave. My kids in a restaurant, my teammates in a project meeting, my neighbors and their ridiculously loud music or free-ranging and poop-dropping dog. We have expectations of others, those expectations aren’t realized, and we get frustrated. It is easy in those moments to move to power as a solution. What leverage do I hold? What threat can I make? Or worse, what physical consequences can I mete out?

When it comes to using power to create change, four things are true:

  • Power is real.
  • Some people have more than others.
  • Power works in the short-term to exact change in others behavior.
  • There are costs to using power—to relationships, results, and the long-term sustainability of change.

Recognizing those costs of using power, I applaud your search for a better way to influence your children. Before I offer some suggestions on ways to approach this situation, let me first note the obvious—all children are different. If your children have specific developmental or behavioral challenges, you would be wise to seek the counsel of a trained therapist or child development expert.

Challenge Your Own Expectations

The moment when someone fails to meet your expectations (e.g. You expect your kids to sit quietly and eat politely when you are in restaurants) should be a trigger for you to examine those expectations. Before jumping to judging and changing the other person, take a minute to assess. Are your expectations fair? Are they developmentally appropriate? If your child is three years old and you are expecting her to sit quietly for two hours while you and your partner enjoy a leisurely dinner, you definitely need to readjust your expectations. Just because you want something to happen doesn’t mean that it should or can happen. Make sure your expectations are realistic and fair.

Describe Your Expectations

Set your child up for success by helping understand the expectations before you start. For some kids, this might mean simply saying, “I expect you to be on your best behavior.” If that is your approach, you’d best be sure that your definition of “best behavior” and your child’s definition of “best behavior” is the same. Depending on the age of your child, this conversation will sound different. I find it helpful to initiate this conversation early in the day, long before we are at the restaurant. I usually start with asking them, “How do you think you should behave when we are at the restaurant later today?” It can also be helpful to follow up with, “And what are some things you shouldn’t do when we are at the restaurant?” Get their input and use the conversation as an opportunity to teach them what respectful behavior does and doesn’t look like.

Make It Easy; Make It Motivating

So, you’ve held the conversation with your child, and they have agreed to behave respectfully at the restaurant. Woo-hoo! It’s time to celebrate, right? Nope. Establishing a shared expectation is the first step, not the last step. If you truly care about an outcome, you need to partner with the other person to make that happen.

Kids (and people) are more likely to engage in a behavior if it is easy and enjoyable. While you can’t (and shouldn’t) make everything easy and enjoyable for your child, if you really want them to do something you should consider how you could make it easier and more enjoyable.

To make things easier, consider:

  • Cues and reminders: As you are heading into the restaurant, ask, “So, what did you agree to do and not do at the restaurant tonight?”
  • Skills and tools: What skills does your child need to learn to deal with boredom? Sitting in a restaurant while your parents are talking and eating can get awfully boring. What skills or techniques can you give your child to deal with boredom? This will look different for different families, but in our family, it is acceptable to bring a book and read after you are finished with your meal.

To make things more enjoyable, consider:

  • Praise: It’s incredibly easy to notice and point out when your child is misbehaving. But make sure to notice and praise when they are behaving. “Wow, you are doing such a great job sitting here at the table and being a part of this conversation!” or “I know we’ve only been at the table a few minutes, but I can already tell how hard you are trying to wait patiently for our meal to be served. Great job!”
  • Rewards: Bribing or paying for good behavior is generally not a sustainable strategy for behavior change (for children or adults!). But rewards do work. So, consider how you might use a small reward to help encourage your children to meet your expectations. Sustainable incentives or rewards might include watching a movie together at home after a dinner out, inviting a friend to dinner next time, or enjoying dessert afterward.

Aim for Progress, Not Perfection

Children are learning and growing, so don’t expect them to be perfect the first time out. Be patient with them and with yourself. Look for and celebrate progress rather than waiting for perfection.

Good luck!

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7 thoughts on “How to Get Your Kids to Behave without Threatening Them”

  1. Liz

    We all learn by practice. It’s so important to teach “proper” table manners at home. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that a child who stands on his chair in a restaurant, is allowed to do it at home. And then also parents need to stay off their phones at mealtime and engage with their children whether in an activity such as colouring or puzzle solving while they wait. Nourish the relationship with your kids while you wait to nourish your body.

  2. JL Jeanne Lay

    Extremely valuable! This reminds me of a program that was executed in our local elementary school that harnessed positive results: Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports or PBIS. Both discussing/agreeing upon behaviors prior to activities and praising when those behaviors are observed were very helpful and effective.

  3. Donna Tinberg

    Thanks for this article, Emily! Restaurant behavior is a pet peeve of mine, and I really can’t blame the kidlets for their behavior. As you’ve indicated, sometimes the parent is just asking for more than a child is able to give developmentally. Also, children cannot demonstrate a skill—even with prompting/rewards—if they haven’t been taught the skill in the first place. Therefore, it also makes sense to teach/practice at home with real meals (at least one night per week) where everyone sits together at a table, uses a full place setting with napkins, and learns good manners in small increments of increasing complexity (perhaps starting with no technology or hats at the table!) Having learned/practiced at home where the stakes are low, children will be much more prepared to demonstrate the skills in public with some prompting. (And truly, some young adults would benefit from having had this kind of practice when they enter the work world or want to impress a date’s parents!) We’ve lost something with our fast food culture and every-man-for-himself meals at home. We need to intentionally teach courteous dining behavior (and other social skills) through real-life practice at home if we want to see it out in public.

  4. Sarah

    I cringed a bit when I saw “rewards” at the end of Emily’s article, because I see so many parents essentially bribing their kids to behave and constantly using food-based rewards that are unhealthy in the long term. I was relieved to see Emily elaborate on the concept and specifically mention experiential rather than food-based rewards. She presented a lot of really great ideas. I especially like the part about setting realistic expectations. I feel sorry when I see parents dragging out a restaurant meal and the kids are clearly bored and antsy. The worst, though, are parents who just turn the kids loose and expect the venue staff to look after them. Kudos to Tempted for wanting to teach their kids consideration for others.

  5. Nancy

    This is so spot on! Especially the shared expectation and strategies to support the behavior that is wanted.
    My favorite is when I hear parents say “now, when we are in the restaurant I want you to behave”. What does that even mean? Setting that clear expectation is so important and respectful to children. Just like with direct reports and co-workers, be clear about what specific behavior is expected of children.

  6. James Brown

    We did some of these suggestions better than others with our kids. One thing we did was to have a code-word. It was a nonsense word that anyone in the family could say and it sent a message of “I am responsible for my actions.” Whenever anyone said it everyone would take a moment and determine whether our own actions met the expectations that had been set. Even at a young age sometimes all it takes a simple reminder that you have power over your own actions. We probably started it when my youngest was 5 and it made a difference. Most of the time when someone called out the word the others would respond with “thanks for the reminder”.

  7. Rajesh

    How much of the guidance here is research based and how much this is anecdotal?

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