The table next to us had two young toddlers and a baby. Their booth was bigger, so the toddlers were running on the seats, shrieking and having fun like only toddlers can. A glass of water was knocked over, dousing one of the adults in the process. Stern words were spoken, but were ineffective as minutes later another glass of water was spilled. As a parent, I empathized with the mother and other adults at the table. I remember how challenging it was to try to reign in an active toddler, who didn’t want to sit still in a restaurant. In those days, all I wanted was a night off from cooking and a (hopefully) hot meal so I was willing to take on the challenge to entertain my toddler for an hour. I have to admit that listening to what going on in the booth behind me, I couldn’t help but be relieved we were past that stage.
This encounter got me thinking about how important it is for us to put our children in new, uncomfortable situations. You may be worried about taking a toddler to a restaurant or on a plane because you are afraid of how they are going to act. It might seem easier to avoid taking them out until they are older and while that is an option, it’s not one I believe is always feasible (or necessary). When you expose them to new environments from an early age, they start to slowly understand the world outside your home. Children learn by observation and by doing. When they see how you act differently at the park compared to a restaurant, they take that in and start processing it. They slowly start to understand different scenarios require different behavior. They watch and absorb instinctively, learning along the way.
The challenge is you must put them in these environments multiple times before they will understand the nuance of their expected behaviors. There’s no magic spell, you can’t just snap your fingers and have a perfectly behaved child in public. However, if you can approach the situation knowing they are learning and knowing they are watching you for cues, your experience will be better. If you can stay calm and patient, they are more likely to be calm. You also must watch for their cues as well. If they are overtired or hungry, it’s going to be harder for them to control themselves, so you may need to adjust your expectations or how you handle the situation. The key is not to get discouraged. Some outings will be great and some will be complete disasters, but you have to keep trying. These are just the beginning steps of going outside of what is known at home and learning to explore outside of their comfort zone. Starting small and starting early will give them to confidence to approach any new experience with excitement, anticipation and good manners.
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