Care and Feeding

Was I Wrong to Let My 4-Year-Old Explore the Restaurant While We Ate?

Our waitress told him to sit down. I’m angry she didn’t speak to me before disciplining my kid.

A exasperated waitress and a boy running around.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My wife and I and our 4-year-old son were out to dinner last week. It was a medium-nice restaurant, not fast food, but not super fancy either. My son is a normal, active little boy, and it’s hard for him to sit through a whole dinner, so we let him explore the restaurant a little. I noticed our waitress giving him the hairy eyeball, so we asked him to stop running. He was pretty good about it after that, but he did get underfoot when she was carrying a tray, and she spoke to him pretty sharply to go back to our table and sit down. I felt it was completely uncalled for, and she should have come and spoken to us personally instead of disciplining someone else’s child.

I tipped 5 percent and spoke briefly to her manager, who gave noncommittal replies. My wife agrees with me, but when we posted about it on Facebook, we got a lot of judgy responses.

—It’s Hard for a 4-Year-Old to Sit Still

Dear Sit Still,

Yeah, this is your fault. It’s hugely your fault. Of course it’s hard for a 4-year-old to sit still, which is why people usually stick to fast-dining establishments while working on restaurant manners. It’s why one parent usually responds to a fidgety kid who wants to “explore” by taking him outside the restaurant, where he can get his wiggles out while not taking laps around servers precariously carrying trays of (often extremely hot) food and drink.

A kid “exploring” a restaurant is not a thing. When you did intervene, it wasn’t to get him back in his seat. It was just to instruct him to “stop running.” You weren’t parenting, so a server did it for you. She was right. You were wrong.

Your son is not ready to eat at a “medium-nice” restaurant again until he is capable of behaving a little better. You can practice at home. You can practice at McDonald’s. You can try a real restaurant again with the understanding that one of you may need to take him out when he starts getting the urge to run an obstacle course.

I doubt that you will do this, but I encourage you to return the restaurant, apologize to the manager for complaining about your server, and leave her a proper tip.

Mend your wicked ways.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I just found out my 12-year-old daughter is the result of my wife’s affair. The affair partner emailed me, having looked at Facebook. I did testing, and my wife confessed. The affair ended a long time ago, and I love my daughter with all my heart. I just … can’t function right now. I can’t look at her, and I cannot look at my wife. We have been happily married for what I thought was 13 years, and I do not want to get divorced. I want to move on, but right now, I’m stuck.

I don’t think my daughter has noticed a change in me. I’ve tried to act like nothing is different (I haven’t even begun to process the necessity of eventually telling her), but it feels like I’m walking through quicksand.

—Please Help

Dear PH,

This is a nightmare. I am so sorry. Your reaction is incredibly human and normal. We can table the “telling your daughter” bit for now, because what we need to focus on is your mental health. You need to take time off work, if you can. Go stay with family or friends for a week or two—no Motel 6, I want you surrounded by love—and talk to a therapist every single day. Take out a loan if you need to. Sell some plasma. This is an investment in you staying alive.

Have at least one friend whom you tell the truth to, whom you can vent at. Someone who will not spread it around. Tell your kids you’re on a business trip. Tell your wife that you’ll be in singles and couples counseling once you come back but that you need this break to reset.

When the dust settles, you may decide you need a divorce or a trial separation. I can already see you lifting up the task of Being the Bigger Man, and that’s great, but it can also break you. She’s still your daughter—legally, as well, in basically any state I can think of, but you can do your own consult on that. This is a one-day-at-a-time scenario if I have ever seen one.

I would like to hear from you in a week, or in two weeks. I’m worried about you. I’m very sorry.

• If you missed Sunday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 4-year-old son can’t get fully vaccinated. He is on immuno-suppressant drugs for the heart transplant that saved his life, and any live vaccines are totally off the table. We are, like any sensible parent with an already immuno-suppressed child, completely pro-vaccine. Herd immunity is not a talking point to us. It keeps our child alive.

We already have to do a lot of keeping him out of class and social gatherings during cold and flu season in order to protect him, but as people become more educated about vaccines, we’ve found ourselves unwelcome at private homes in which parents ask about vaccination status. We do not blame them for this, especially when they have babies and small children. We also always explain the medical reasons we cannot fully vaccinate him, and people have been warmly apologetic. But he still can’t come over for play dates.

“Felix” is now old enough to start to notice that his social life is different from that of his classmates. He’s informed about his own health, at an age-appropriate level, but I would love any advice about how to help him through this.

—It’s Not Fair, It Just Is

Dear Not Fair,

Oh, poor Felix. And poor you! Having a medically fragile child is like nothing else in this world, and I don’t think anyone really recovers from it completely. I have a dear friend whose daughter has one of those severe peanut allergies where a washed knife used previously to cut a sandwich can be lethal. He says the hardest part is being constantly afraid she will die, and the second-hardest part is needing to scare his own child, something the rest of us devote a lot of time to avoiding. He can’t say “everything will be fine.” He has to say “you will literally die if you are exposed to a trace amount of peanut dust.” He doesn’t have a choice.

Felix has a tough row to hoe in life. He will miss out on things he wants to do. You are correct that these parents are making the right choices for their families, and you are also correct to feel sad on his behalf. Felix is going to benefit hugely from the internet, from phones (CLEAN YOUR PHONES, EVERYONE), and from the myriad of ways children now honestly prefer to connect with one another in lieu of poking dead things in creeks with sticks. Felix is a 21st-century man. If he can’t come to a good friend’s birthday party because they have a baby, he can Skype in. He can do group projects during cold and flu season via technology.

I am glad that you answer questions about his vaccination status honestly. You’re good parents, and you’re good people. Be honest with Felix about how it’s not fair. As he gets older, you can talk about how it may be helpful not to compare his life as an immuno-suppressed child with that of a child with a functional immune system. Do your best to hear and empathize with his challenges, while also cultivating gratitude for the modern medicine that has allowed him to live.

You are in my heart. So is Felix.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My eldest daughter will be applying to colleges this year, and on her list are (almost exclusively) very expensive schools she can almost certainly get into. Her guidance counselor says she can pretty much pick and choose. We’re in that tricky financial spot where we cannot possibly pay full-freight at these schools, nor are we sufficiently poor to qualify for the (excellent) need-based aid that the Ivies and some other colleges offer. And we have two younger children who will be coming up behind her in two and four years. We haven’t sat down and talked about this yet, partly because I don’t know how to tell her that all those years of “focus on your grades for college” are going to come down to an Excel spreadsheet that doesn’t reconcile with our finances. I feel like I have failed her. We can send her to our decent state university, or she can take out loans, or we can take out loans.

—What Do I Say?

Dear WDIS?

You have not failed your daughter. This is the very first thing I want to tell you. The second thing is that you, yourself, cannot take out loans. You need to be thinking about your own future, not to mention you will likely find yourself in a similar position with your younger kids.

The greatest gift you can give your daughter is transparency. Now. Sit down, eat some ice cream, and say, “We are so unbelievably proud of your accomplishments, and as you start to apply for schools, we need to talk about the degree to which we can contribute financially, and what our other options are.”

If you haven’t already done so, please go look at the Ivy schools’ financial aid sites and run the calculators they provide. Harvard and Yale, etc., now charge nothing for families who make under an amount you may find surprising (this includes housing, grants for books, and so on). There are people for whom Harvard is affordable and their state school isn’t.

Your daughter has a lot of options: two years at the state school before transferring to a “dream school,” cutting costs and her loan burden. Four years at the state school without loans. Finding and applying for every small scholarship she can get her hands on. Her guidance counselor can be an invaluable reference for these opportunities, many of which aren’t handed out every year because people don’t know they exist and don’t apply for them. $200 from the Rotarians, $500 from the Knights of Columbus, $1,200 from the local Junior Commerce people—it adds up. Don’t leave a dime on the table.

If you are able and willing to pay state school tuition, you can tell your daughter that if she has her heart set on a pricey private school, you will contribute what you would have given for the state school, and she will have to make up the rest between scholarships and (her own!) student loans.

The key to avoiding hopelessness is options. Give her the information. Give her the numbers. She’s a smart kid. Do what you can to avoid the worst-case scenario: her taking out full loans at a name-brand school for four years. That being said, this is, in many ways, her first move into adulthood. Let the numbers talk for themselves, and don’t try to pressure her. I want this conversation to be about openness, positivity, pride in your daughter, and realism without judgment.

—Nicole

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