It was date night. My husband and I were enjoying a quiet, relaxing dinner on the veranda of a nice restaurant when a young couple with a toddler was seated at the table next to us.
Now I’m not one to get irritated when children cry or get fussy in public. I remember being a young mother and well know that some kids are easier than others—and that even toddlers and preschoolers who are usually good-humored and well-behaved have meltdowns when tired or pushed. On airplanes, I’ve even offered to swap seats with passengers who look stricken to discover that their assigned seat is next to a parent with a young child. Maybe I’m a pushover, but I have sympathy for all parties—the struggling parent, the unhappy offspring, and the intolerant onlookers.
On this particular night, I watched as the couple settled the child into a highchair and idly wondered if the serenity of the veranda would soon be compromised. But ironically, it was this child’s good behavior that pulled my attention away from my “date.” I leaned in to listen as the two adults talked—to each other and to her.
What I heard intrigued me. It was clear that these two people were enchanted by this young child. They clearly delighted in her, explaining their appetizer and helping her learn the word eggplant. They offered small tastes of different foods to her, and she happily complied—seeming to enjoy the dinner every bit as much as they did. When they moved their attention from her to each other, she allowed it. She was an integral part of the dining experience, and she charmed everyone by waving to the wait staff and flashing her toothy smile. The couple didn’t find it necessary to constantly entertain her, or pacify her with toys or books or an iPhone. They simply talked, laughed, and experienced dinner together.
I was sure the couple must be baby-sitters or a doting aunt and uncle. I had to ask. Yes, they were her parents, they assured me, laughing.
Huh. Parents who used neither stick nor carrot? The whole evening, they did not punish or scold their child—and they did not offer a bribe or reward for good behavior. By simply being present in the moment, they demonstrated their authentic delight and appreciation for their child as an individual. They made the evening intrinsically interesting to her by talking about the food and encouraging her budding social skills. And without showering her with praise, they acknowledged and celebrated each new step in her development.
So, what gives? I wondered.
Granted, she may have been an “easygoing” child. Or maybe the parents were exceptionally well rested and relaxed. Maybe the next or last dinner out at a nice restaurant didn’t go as well.
But on that particular evening, this couple modeled how, in a perfect world, we’d all wish to parent our children. Not by plying them with treats and promises in exchange for compliance, and not with threats. Rather their focus was on authentic connection, which reinforced positive, pro-social behavior. It was what some call mindfulness or “being in the moment.”
It’s probably a stretch to say that because they were “in the moment,” their child behaved beautifully. I think being a mindful parent isn’t about parenting in a particular way to create the child you want to have. It’s more about reacting appropriately to the child you actually have—in any given moment. On this night, these parents had a lovely little dinner companion, and they took full advantage. On another, less successful outing, I like to think they were equally responsive in a way that was appropriate for that situation.
As I reflect back on when my kids were young, I see that sometimes we may have simply “taken them along” with us—almost as if they were accessories. The hope or the goal was to get them “to behave” in public. But on this night, I was shown what a powerful learning experience outings like this can be for both kids and parents when the goal is to truly connect and create and celebrate learnings, big and small.
Christine French Cully is the editor in chief of Highlights for Children, Inc., where she is responsible for shaping the editorial direction of all the magazines, online content and products the company develops for children and their families. She plays a strategic, ongoing role in the development of the Highlights vision and brand across all markets and channels/around the globe. Cully, a mother of two, resides in Honesdale, Pennsylvania.