Robert St. John Column

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 20, 2008

Passing years change how children act when dining

What a difference a few years make.

When my daughter was born— 11 years ago— my wife and I never slowed down. We ate in the same restaurants, visited the same hotels, and flew the same airlines. Other than getting to move to the front of the line when flying Southwest, our travel plans were never altered.

Our daughter was the perfect restaurant customer. At 6-months old she ate a meal at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. She never made a peep. She was neat, well-mannered, and polite, never dropping a morsel. The floor around her was as clean as her cheeks.

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My wife and I spent countless hours patting ourselves on the back in those days. We had obviously mastered this whole parenting thing. While dining in restaurants, we would watch other children running around the dining room, screaming, throwing food, and being all-around bad restaurant patrons.

We would turn to our daughter and think to ourselves: If only those parents could talk to us, we would tell them how it’s done. Look at our child. See how well behaved she is. We are masters of parenting. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if someday soon someone asks us to write the definitive guide to parenting, and what a breeze that would be.

And then our son was born and we learned that we had nothing to do with the good nature and refinement of our daughter. It had been the luck of the draw. The second time we shuffled the deck, we drew a joker.

My son was not a good restaurant customer. Actually, we only went out to dinner a few times in his early years. We had suddenly become the parents with the rowdy child terrorizing the dining room. We would see other parents— parents with only one well-behaved child— looking at us the way we used to look at other people. We knew the look. It said: You poor, poor people. If only you would talk to us. We could give you all of our parenting secrets.

I wanted to tell them where they could put their secrets, but I was too busy trying to stop my son from swinging on the light fixtures. He had good intentions. He was not mean, or rude, or hurtful, just full of energy and volume.

Fast forward six years. My daughter is 11-years old, my son is seven. The two of them and their mother took me to Commander’s Palace for Father’s Day brunch. It was a great experience. Other than jumping up once to swat a fly on the window sill with his napkin, my son was perfectly behaved. My daughter, who is 11 going on 40, was her usual well-mannered self. I thought: We have finally arrived.

Two tables over, in the middle of the room, was a young couple with a baby. The baby was loud. He was just being a baby. The parents were obviously embarrassed. The father was looking around the room, giving the universal sign of helplessness— the shrug of the shoulders and a humiliated grin.

Midway through the third course, my eyes met the eyes of the screaming baby’s father. He gave me a look that said: I’m sorry. I knew the look. I had lived with that look for several years. I shrugged and mouthed the words, “It’s O.K.” I don’t think he believed me, but I know that he’ll get through it. Things will get better. There are brighter days ahead.

I then turned my attention back to my family. My son was dipping his spoon into his bread pudding soufflé; my daughter was tasting her mother’s coffee. The jazz band had drowned out the screaming six-month old with a wandering three-piece version of a Louis Armstrong classic.

I hear babies cry, I watch them grow.

They’ll learn more than I’ll ever know.

And I say to myself, what a wonderful world.

It truly is.

For this week’s recipe, Grilled Bananas Foster, go to the column link on <> .(Robert St.John is an author, chef, restaurateur, and world-class eater. He is the author of seven books including the newly released New South Grilling. He can be reached at <> .)