for the win

We took Chicken and Buster to a restaurant the other night for dinner.

Actually, let me be precise here.

We took Chicken and Buster to a restaurant at 4:00 pm for dinner. YEAH WE DID. Say something. I dare you.

Chicken was great. I mean, he was great. He sat in his high chair. He ate his food without throwing or squishing anything in his iron toddler fist. He giggled and asked for "mo mo chicken pweese." People commented on how well-behaved he was. Ryan and I beamed at him, at each other, at the waitress, at other diners who cast happy/impressed smiles in our direction. We were basically neon.

But then someone said something along the lines of, "He's so much better-behaved than so many other two-year-olds I see in restaurants. Great job."

(RECORD SCRATCH)

Hold the phone.

There's a line here, a somewhat delicate one, that I think needs clarification.

Let's unpack your observation.

"He's so much better-behaved than so many other two-year-olds I see in restaurants. Great job."

You just told me that:

a) My son is well-behaved, which shows that he's a "good" kid with a "good" personality.
b) Ryan and I are "good" parents who have thoughtfully and consistently taught our son how to be respectful and polite when dining in a restaurant.
c) Other toddlers who aren't well-behaved are not as "good" as our toddler.
d) Parents of not-so-well-behaved toddlers are not as "good" as Ryan and I are at teaching children, enforcing rules, or creating "good" babies.

Yeah... no.

Chicken was well-behaved. Yes. THIS time. But he's also been that kid who throws food and kicks the table and climbs out of his chair, across the table, and into my lap so he can smear pudding in my hair. It's a total fucking crap shoot every single time we take him out to a restaurant.

We have eaten our food in shifts so one of us can be sitting outside with Chicken because he can't keep his shit together.

We've had to bum-rush the server at the water station to beg for our food to be wrapped up and rung up now please, yes right now, immediately, quickasyoucan.

A two-year-old's personality is a study in extremes. Today you saw an extremely charming and cooperative little boy, but don't be fooled. We are one spilled water glass away from total anarchy here, folks. We all got lucky.

I also absolutely abhor the way people throw around the words "good" and "bad" in relation to young kids. When you call one kid good, that means that he could also have been bad. A kid might be having a bad day, or bad moment, or bad night. He might be feeling bad, or be bad at handling those feelings right now, but don't ever call a kid "bad."

I imagine my baby saying, "Chicken bad," or asking me "Mommy? Chicken bad?" That shit makes me want to go Hulk and punch a wall-slash-cry and hug him tight as I can while saying "no, no, no baby. Chicken is so good. SO good." Kids aren't bad. That's a judgment that no child of 24 months should ever have to shoulder.

Also, since we're talking about value judgements - parents aren't "good" or "bad" either. It's spectacularly unfair to label a parent "bad" because a toddler is having a hard time sitting still, and just as unfair to label Ryan and me "good" because Chicken liked the dumpling house one time.

Thanks for thinking that we had a master plan in regards to teaching our son about restaurant comportment. That's a good one. Seriously. You should go on tour.

Ryan and I have one table-manners rule in our house: food goes on a plate or in your mouth. That's it. He doesn't have to eat his vegetables. He doesn't have to finish the spaghetti before he has dessert. As long as his food stays on the plate or in his mouth, I don't care what he does with it. We've held the line on this rule since Chicken was about 14 or 16 months old - if he drops or throws food on purpose, the plate is gone and the meal is over. We don't care if it was the first bite of dinner. If he's throwing food, he's obviously not hungry.

Yes, when we take him out to a restaurant and he doesn't throw food, it does make us feel like it was worth it, that he managed to absorb the lesson after every time we pulled a full plate away from him and had to wipe up spattered red sauce or applesauce or that handful of peas that exploded like a shotgun shell when he flung it to the ground.

But here's the kicker. If tomorrow he threw a fistful of oatmeal, and I removed the disincentive of pulling his plate, he would be flinging food around like Jackson motherfucking Pollock in a matter of seconds. That's the thing about punishment and reward, people. It requires absolute consistency. It's not that a toddler ever stops testing the fences you build. He just approaches them more gingerly next time. He just accepts more quickly and easily that you've said "no," like you always do. And then tomorrow he'll check again. Oh, you bet he will.

I'm so happy that our family had a nice dinner. I'm thrilled that my son ate well and enjoyed the outing, that I finally got to eat the dumplings I've been craving ever since we got that book from the library about the little boy who visits his grandfather's Chinese restaurant. I'm glad that everyone else in the restaurant was treated to the sight of a happy boy, a sleeping infant, and two beaming parents.

That was a win. But the longer I'm a mom, the more I feel certain that every parenting win is a team effort between the parents, the child, the weather, the nap, the snack, God almighty, and blind fucking luck.

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