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"I let my kids watch an iPad in a restaurant, and almost had a fight with the waitress."

Hey parents, I have some advice for you. At meal times, you deserve to sit down and eat. I know that you want everyone – particularly the little kids – to be fed and settled. But you also need sustenance, and it’s not fun to run on empty.

Did you also know that your kid can watch an iPad for ten minutes at a restaurant and not turn into an iPad-addicted robot for the rest of their lives? Really, it’s okay. You will all survive, and better than that, you will all be happy.

Let me take you to a pre-iPad restaurant experience. We were on a beachside holiday, and we were at a local pizza joint. Emmy and Will, who were four and one at the time, were not cooperating, no matter how hard I tried. I did the gentle yet firm talking-through-my-teeth thing that the Duchess of Cambridge does to Prince George at formal events. I brought out pencils and paper. I sang songs. I gave cuddles. Nothing worked.

Will screamed and cried the entire time. After the kids ate maybe three bites between them, and my husband had scarfed down his pizza, he took the kids outside for a walk, but they kept fussing and screaming out there. I could hear and see them from the window. So, after a single bite, I asked for my pizza to be put in a takeaway box, and I left the restaurant while trying not to cry. I didn’t eat that pizza until hours later, when my kids were asleep.

"After the kids ate maybe three bites between them, and my husband had scarfed down his pizza, he took the kids outside for a walk." Image: Supplied.
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Okay, so clearly, this was not the worst thing to have ever happened in my life. I was on a summer holiday, eating out, and have two beautiful kids – I am privileged. But parenting is not an easy gig. I was sleep deprived, hungry and worn down from days of looking after everyone, and it all combined to make me emotional. It was the slice of pizza that broke the mummy camel’s back.

There is a school of thought from the Association of Grumps who say that you shouldn’t take your kids to a restaurant until they are old enough to chat with the sommelier about matching wines to mains. I agree with them. But at the same time, there are times when, as a family, we have to eat out. There are relative’s milestone birthdays that are held at restaurants, or sometimes we are just really hungry and have no food at home.

And this leads us to the moment when I let my kids watch an iPad in a restaurant, and almost had a fight with the waitress who would not stop staring at us.

We had just returned to Canberra after spending a week in Sydney (our old home town) where we had to visit my son’s medical specialists. Our luggage was still in the car. It was already past our kids’ dinner time, and we hadn’t gone grocery shopping yet, so we stopped at a local Italian restaurant for pasta.

The kids had eaten their spaghetti bolognese, and I still had half of my creamy pasta to go, so I set up an iPad in front of Will and Emmy. They watched an episode of Pingu as I shovelled fettuccine into my mouth, and my husband did the same with his ravioli.

kids at resturants
"The kids had eaten their spaghetti bolognese, and I still had half of my creamy pasta to go, so I set up an iPad in front of Will and Emmy." Image: Supplied.
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I looked up, mid-forkful, to see the young waitress standing behind my kids, taking in the iPad and Pingu. Her arms were crossed, her eyes were narrowed, and she was wearing all black. She didn’t look friendly, and I began to feel uncomfortable as she stayed there for a few minutes, just watching. I felt judged, and was quick to defend myself.

“They only watch a bit of the iPad so that I can eat my dinner. They don’t watch it all night. Ha ha ha!” I laughed nervously. She obviously thought that I left my kids in front of screens all day, so that I could take the easy way out and entertain them, rather than teach them how to behave in public and engage with the world around them.

The waitress looked surprised, and then stared at me before she replied:

“Oh, I was just thinking that I do the exact same thing with me son. He’s five. If I didn’t let him watch an iPad, I wouldn’t get to eat. I completely understand.”

“So you get it!” I exclaimed. And we began to chat like we were old friends.

She wasn’t judging me. She was empathising and identifying with me.

So next time you catch someone looking your way when you are out with your kids, just remember that they may actually be on your side. They might not be thinking badly of you. In fact, they may not be thinking of you at all. I am so quick to criticise and judge myself as a parent, so of course I assume that everyone else will have something negative to say, too. Often, people want to help or connect. We can find community and camaraderie where we least expect it.

We all left the restaurant that night with full bellies and smiles on our faces. And I was happy in the knowledge that once my kids were in bed, I could have a cup of tea and watch my favourite show on Netflix on my iPad. We all need our creature comforts, and the things in life that make us feel okay.

We don’t have a perfect time whenever we go out as a family, and we also don’t always use the iPad. But what I have tried to remember is that we are all humans who need things. I need to eat my dinner. My kids need to feel comforted and safe.

Being ‘good’ as a parent or child isn’t the same as being ‘happy’, and if I can do one small thing to make everyone – including fellow diners – feel happy and less freaked out, then I’ll whip out my iPad and press play.

Carla Gee is a writer and illustrator, living in Canberra. You can follow her on Instagram, @bycarlagee.

Do you let your kids use iPads in restaurants? Tell us in the comments! 

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