How to Help Kids Behave in Restaurants, Church, Storytime, Music Class, and More

We all have certain hopes and expectations of our children when it comes to their behavior in public settings, both organized and informal. We’re often disappointed. The reality is that in any given situation, not every young child will handle themselves with the kind of interest and attention we desire or expect, even when other children seem to have it all together. Janet offers 9 suggestions for how we can better understand our children’s behavior in these moments and how to support them to benefit from the experiences.

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Transcript of “How to Help Kids Behave in Restaurants, Church, Storytime, Music Class, and More”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

Today I’m going to be addressing a topic that I receive a lot of questions about, which is, how do we help our children to be at their best, or at least not be disruptive, in situations like a restaurant, a library storytime, church, music class, or any other type of class? Parents often reach out to me concerned because their child wants to run around during the storytime or can’t be in church or sit in the restaurant. So I hope that what I share here today will help give you some clarity on what to expect and also how to help our child to meet these situations, and therefore help us to meet these situations, with as much success as possible.

  1. Have Reasonable Expectations

Okay, so the first thing we want to do when our child is in one of these situations, setting ourselves up for success, is to have reasonable expectations. And that means to not expect that our child is necessarily going to be able to thrive in any of these situations. What will help guide us in our expectations is seeing through our child’s eyes, our individual child, what we know about them. But what we know about all children when they’re one, two, three, sometimes even four, five years old, is that it’s not developmentally appropriate for us to expect that a child will be able to sit in a restaurant, sit through a church ceremony, that they will want to sit when somebody’s reading them a book in storytime, or pay attention to a music teacher or some other kind of teacher.

What children are geared to do in these early years is be explorers, inner-directed explorers. And they explore with all their senses. Often that means movement, not sitting still. They’re gathering all of this information about their world, taking it all in. They’re learning so quickly. Self-directed means that they instinctively know what they want to learn next about that environment, that their interests will often be different than what we might put out there for them. And the more that we can trust that, the better that system will work for them. And the more confident they will feel and motivated they will be to keep learning. So it is something that we want to try to implement for them, that they get to direct their learning.

The situations I’m going to talk about today are all ones where there is an agenda that is more adult-centered. That we want them to sit for this period of time, that we want them to focus and pay attention to what the adults are doing, as in the case of these classes or storytime or church. So we’re kind of putting our child in, I don’t want to say an unnatural position, but it’s not what they’re organically geared toward. If we can come into these situations with the expectation that it very well may not work out for our child to be there, or be there in the way that we want them to at least, that’s the way to start in setting ourselves up for success. Because even though some of these classes are meant for children, like storytime, when children aren’t the one choosing that—and this can be true even with an older child, if they’re in a lesson that they are doing because we want them to, or they’ve got this idea that we feel that they should want to but they’re not genuinely interested in it themselves—then that also becomes a mismatch for them in their development as self-motivated learners and explorers.

The less that we expect our child should be fine in these situations, therefore, the less that we try to control. Especially if we’re frantically managing, putting a lid on behavior, trying to help our child conform to a situation, getting stressed about it, right? Because if we have that agenda, if we feel that responsibility on ourselves and, Oh, maybe other children are fine with this, why isn’t mine?, then yeah, we’re putting a lot of pressure on ourselves that will immediately get absorbed by our child. So the less that we expect our child will be fine, the better chance our child has to handle it well and surprise us. Why is that? Because we are feeling and being able to be that calm, safe, empathic leader for our child. We see them, we get them. Instead of having those “shoulds” about our child. Because even if our child can do this sometimes, they can’t always.

So that open perspective, knowing that I’m putting my child into a situation that is not going to be the best organic fit, because I want to be in this situation, right? That’s why we do it, because we want it or we think that this is what we should do for our child. But if we can let go of that, it will decide our outlook on the entire experience and how we react to our child’s behaviors. I know that sounds maybe really general, but I’m going to explain with more specifics, I promise.

So am I saying, though, that being a calm, safe, empathic leader, does this mean that we’re just chilled out and we let our child carry on as they wish and run around and maybe be disruptive? Absolutely not, in my opinion. Because our child is showing us that they need our help to be safe and appropriate and not a bother to others. Our child can’t be the one that’s in charge of that. It’s kind of leaving them high and dry, letting them be this person in the room that they don’t want to be, that will feel to them like they are failing. I mean, children are quite aware of people’s energy and their feelings around them. So if other people are annoyed and our child is not behaving as expected in that environment, then our child is taking that in as This is who I am with other people, maybe. At worst, I guess. Or, I can’t face these situations because I’m kind of failing here.

So that’s the first point I want to make. Have reasonable expectations. Don’t expect that children can conform to adult-agenda activities.

     2. Know Your Child

Second, know your child. Consider your child’s temperament, their readiness, what they’ve shown you. And sometimes they’re maybe ready one time, but this other time they couldn’t handle it because they were too tired, too hungry, we were stressed that day, we were rushed. All those things can make it less possible for them to approach a situation.

To give you an example, I have two daughters and a son, and the son is the youngest. My daughters both were, amazingly to me, the kind of children who, even as babies and toddlers, could sit in a restaurant longer than just while they were eating. And they were also both the type that, they’d be at a birthday party and they’d be sitting there finishing their cake while the other kids were up and running around. So they enjoyed the whole meal experience. Then we had our son and he’s a very active temperament, loves to move his body. Even as an infant, he wasn’t able to be in a family diner with us. He wasn’t able to hang out like that, you know? So we would get takeout instead when we could. But we learned this by trying it and then seeing, Uh-oh, this is not going to work out. And then we didn’t try it again for a long time. I mean, he could definitely sit while he ate, but not in a restaurant situation. It was harder for him. Therefore, we didn’t take him out to restaurants. We would get takeout, we would go sit outside somewhere. We would go places where he could just eat and then get up and jump and go around, because we weren’t going to let him do that in a restaurant and be maybe unsafe and disturb other people.

So, knowing our child. They will show us what they can handle and what they can’t.

      3. Prepare and Inform Your Child

The third point: we want to prepare and inform our children, so that they have the best chance of meeting the situation with more confidence and maybe even eagerness.

Telling your child about the story time at the library, We’re going to go there, this person is going to read a story and all the children are going to sit on the rug and listen to the story. This isn’t a time to get up and run around. If you feel like you have to do that, then we’ll leave and we’ll try again when you want to. Or, This is what happens at church. We’re going to go in, we’re going to sit down in this pew. And we’ll hear music, there’s people singing and we’re going to sing along with them. You can sing along with us. Then there’ll be a part where we say prayers. So whatever we know about the situation. You’ve heard me recommend this a lot—going to a doctor’s appointment, going to a new school, getting ready for a new baby in the family—to give our children all that information. Just what we know for sure. Or we could say, I think there might be this. So not trying to pump them up or get them excited about it.

Maybe even openly sharing some of the downsides, like, Sometimes it feels hard to sit while people are talking and if you want to sit on my lap, you can, if you want to sit next to me, you can. But we have to stay sitting. Or in the restaurant, We have to wait a little while to get our food and we’re going to bring some crayons for you. If you want to color, you can, or draw, while we’re waiting. Or we can talk to each other or we can look around at all the people. Giving that kind of information. That helps children, even in the dull parts, to know that, Oh, this is all part of the story that I heard was going to happen. And it’s very empowering for them. Young children tend to love the idea of knowing something. Because so much of their world is overwhelming and they don’t understand it. So giving them as much as we can to understand, it’s a great setup for success.

       4. Prepare Ourselves With a Plan

The fourth point: we want to prepare ourselves. And that goes with that expectation thing. Preparing ourselves, which means we’re going to have a plan B, hopefully, ideally. What if they can’t be there? What if they want to get up and run around? If I’m with my partner, maybe you can take them out for a little walk or we can take turns or maybe we get takeout. I’m talking about a restaurant now, obviously. But having an exit strategy in all kinds of situations, even a party or a place that we know they want to be. Because stuff happens, and we’ll feel less disappointed and thrown by these things if we’ve included all of them in our plan. All the possibilities.

So now the next five points I want to make are under the heading of once we’re there.

       5. Allow Your Child to Engage on Their Terms

Number five is allow children to engage on their terms, following their interests as much as possible. Oftentimes as parents we have these ideas, especially if we’re excited about sharing something with our child, like the storytime or the music class, we kind of have an image of what it’s going to be like. There’s nothing wrong with us for doing that, right? The fun of parenting is getting excited about things. But it can be just as fun to not have expectations and be really open to learning about who our child is in those moments.

For example, I was doing an in-home consultation for a few days with this family and they took their boy, who was not even one-and-a-half I don’t think, something like 15 months, to a music class. I’m not sure what it was called. And the mom asked me to come along, so I did. What I saw was similar to what I’d seen with my oldest daughter when I tried this with her. That very sweet, lovely adult was the one directing everything, of course. I mean that’s the way most of us think we should do a class like that. So she was deciding what they would do next, the next song, and what everyone would do, clap their hands, or the way that she wanted everyone to participate. One of the reasons the mother wanted me to come with her was because her boy wasn’t really participating in the past and she just wanted my input on why that might be. He was a newish walker. He was interested in chair legs and pulling himself up. And he was just interested in the whole environment, as children are, exploring. He was listening to the music. I mean, how could he not, right? And seemed to enjoy it sometimes. But he wasn’t sitting there and following her direction. And actually most of the children weren’t, but the moms were kind of helping them.

When I saw this, though, and I think I even said this to the mother beforehand, it made sense to me that, yes, he’s doing really age-appropriate learning and exploring. And really there was nothing wrong with that there because he wasn’t disrupting anything, he wasn’t doing anything unsafe. He was just doing his own thing in this classroom.

And there was a point where the teacher was having them all drum on these rhythm instruments, they had little drumsticks that they were supposed to be hitting the instruments with. And she was showing them the beat that she wanted them to do. And there was this one little boy, he started doing this really quick bum ba bum bum bum with the stick, just waving his hand furiously. And I was a little disappointed because I thought that the teacher could have maybe let him take the attention for a minute. Oh look what he’s doing. Wow, you’ve got your own beat there! And maybe, I’m going to try to follow what he’s doing. In other words, encouraging that contribution, that participation, that children have to an experience. For me it’s the main reason to be in these experiences, is to see what the children are bringing to it or what’s holding their interest in that experience, what they’re learning about. And fostering their self-confidence at the same time: You’re doing something valid. This is interesting. You’re going to take the floor for a minute, we’re watching you, we’re welcoming this. Instead, this teacher did what I think is normal and, again, very well-intentioned. She kept going with her way, her plan that she wanted this to go.

So what I’m saying, as parents, is to be open to that. Your child may be in church, they love that red hymnal and they want to be the one to hold the book open while we’re singing. Or maybe they love the little nook in the pew bench and they’re just enjoying that. They’re meeting the experiences on their terms. And that’s gold, that we often miss. And that ends up kind of discouraging children when what we want is to encourage them to be there as themselves, bringing in who they are, as long as it’s appropriate.

       6. Encourage Engagement, Not Distraction

So six, under once we’re there: take them outside if needed, but as much as possible encourage engagement rather than distraction from the experience. So have boundaries in this situation like taking them outside of the restaurant or outside of the church, removing them from those situations as needed. But otherwise, as much as possible, encouraging engagement rather than distraction from the whole experience. You know, bringing in your crayons to a restaurant or having them utilize the ones that are there, or maybe even bringing a little small toy in that they can use at the table safely. That allows them to still stay in the experience.

But when we do something that’s really common these days, and I do understand it, we take out our phone for our child or a little tablet or something while we’re at dinner. We do whatever it takes, right? But if this is a regular practice, what we’re teaching is that, You can’t handle this experience with us. And we’re also teaching that it’s okay to not pay attention to what’s going on in life right now. It’s okay to just totally be somewhere else. Probably for most of us, that’s not a message that we want our children to have. No judgment if you do. But it’s sort of the opposite of encouraging mindfulness and presence and values that a lot of us have.

Now, if this situation is a car for a long trip or especially an airplane, then yes, these are kind of static situations for a child. There’s not more happening, it’s sort of a lot of sameness. That’s when I might give them something that removes them a little more from the experience. But still I would do that as a last resort.

And this is also something to prepare for, going back to those first points I was making. You’re going to be in your car seat and we’ll be driving. It’ll be a long time. Would you like to hear music? Which music should we bring? What kind of object would you like to bring, or a book that you can look at, or a toy? If you want, you can always look out the window. There’s going to be sights passing by. What can we do to help you be comfortable in this situation? And of course if our child isn’t able to answer yet, then we’ll have those options. But still, I would prepare even your baby for what’s going to happen. And, You know, you may want to go to sleep because you will feel sleepy in the car probably. And we’ll be there in the front, but we won’t be able to sit with you until it’s time to stop. So all of that honesty, putting it out there. If you’re like me, you want to avoid the negatives, but that really doesn’t help our child. So to be brave and say all of the stuff, that’s a gift that we can give children. And ourselves, because it will probably go better.

        7. Give Your Child Autonomy by Inviting Their Participation

Okay, seven: consider and invite participation for that healthy sense of control and autonomy. Again, following your child’s interests.

Maybe in the library, they can still be there without running around, but they want to stand or they want to be the one to choose a book to bring and see if the librarian will read that book. And if not, you can read it to them after. My children, we were able to manage church for all of them, somehow. But you know, it was touch and go, and we used Sunday school, too. In those cases, maybe one of you, if there’s two of you, or just you, if you’re a single parent, you go to the Sunday school and you miss the service for a couple of Sundays, so that you can help your child get accustomed to those people. Because nobody wants to be left—especially when you can’t express yourself that well yet—with people that they don’t know, that don’t understand them, that are going to have a harder time knowing what they need. It’s uncomfortable, right? So give your child time to get used to a situation, it will pay off.

So yeah, we used Sunday school and also involving them in the experience of church services. And sometimes when they were quite young they were able to do it, and I was always amazed. I just remembered, because my mother-in-law brought it up recently, my son, he was four years old and he was an acolyte. He was carrying, in the procession, this huge candle. What my mother-in-law said the other day was, “I remember when I went to church with you all once and saw him doing that. And there was this girl walking right in front of him with long hair, and I thought, Oh gosh, he could set her hair on fire.” But you know, he was rising so much to that occasion, as children do when we give them ways to participate like that, real ways, that he took that job more seriously than anybody else there. He was so into that.

So if we give them that purpose, based on what they’re interested in, it can really help them settle and enjoy. Children want to feel autonomous. They want to be involved, not be bystanders. Allow them to express their autonomy and their capability.

Another thing to do in all these situations is, if you have more than one child, invite an older child to help with the younger one. Do you want to be the one to sit next to your brother and help him stay comfortable in the service or at the restaurant or in the storytime? That’s a very powerful way for an older child to participate and feel autonomous, feel that sense of control. That’s healthy.

         8. Let What They Do Be Enough

And then number eight: let what they can do be enough. If they’re like this boy in the music class, if they’re exploring around the room, not disturbing anyone, it’s perfectly appropriate for him to do that there. Let that be enough. See that as a success.

         9. Create Shared Rituals

And finally, number nine: create rituals together with your child around these experiences. So with what your child enjoys, or what you enjoy and decide to introduce them to, have those routines that you develop.

For us, for example, my oldest daughter, we went to this little Mexican cantina in our neighborhood, and we tried to go once a week when we could. Well they had an old-fashioned jukebox there. And we tried that one time and I let my daughter push the buttons, and I think she was barely one. But this became our thing. We enjoyed Here Comes The Sun, we enjoyed La Bamba, and all these great oldies that they had. It was so exciting for her to know we chose the song and it’s going to come on. And to be a part of that and enjoy that together. So that became our routine in that restaurant, and I love those memories. It was an amazing time with her.

We also had, there was this little sandwich shop that we used to go to. And we would sit outside on benches, and the pigeons would always be there trying to get your food, and have our sandwiches. And then they had a little playground, very small playground. She would play on the playground a little while and then we’d walk to a bathroom in this little shopping center. So we would do that. It was a ritual that we both looked forward to and that she felt, again, that on-top-of-it feeling of, Yes, I’m a part of this because I know everything that’s going to happen. Pretty much, I mean obviously she didn’t know what children were going to be at the playground or how many birds there would be that day. But those rituals frame our whole experience.

And then all of our children, in the local restaurant, it was the cantina and this other restaurant that was right next door to it that was a Japanese place where they would have rice and miso soup and it was the most inexpensive meal and they loved it. And then there was a little fish pond outside and either my husband or I would take them out to the fish pond while the other one got to stay in and finish their food. And then everybody would come back and maybe eat a little more.

So find those rituals that work for both of you. And, if they’re like my children and most children, they’ll never get old. We’ll only miss them when we all grow out of those experiences and look back with nostalgia.

I hope some of that helps. And, as always, these are my opinions based on my training and my extensive observations of all different kinds of children over the years in my work, and of course my own personal experiences with my children. So you don’t have to agree, these may not be right for you. I would love to hear if you can write to me or share somewhere in a comment or review some of your ideas or what’s worked for you in these situations. I would really love to hear it. So I guess this is the first time I’m saying I’d love some feedback.

Thank you so much. We can do this.


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Your #3 really resonates with me and is one of the most effective strategies we have found to help my daughter manage change and transitions. When she knows what is going to happen, she handles it calmly. When there is no warning about things going differently than she expects, it often results in tears. We can’t always give her warning (life is messy!) but it is possible more often than one might think once you know to consider it.

  2. Thank you, I loved this article!
    I think that the most important thing is being willing to leave if the kid/kids (I have 3) are showing that they aren’t ready for that activity, that day. Where I live, there seems to be this expectation that parents HAVE to make the kids conform to the situation (school, church, daycare, etc.), instead of working with what the child is ready for. I understand that sometimes there isn’t always a lot of flexibility and that some activities have to happen at certain times and ways. Neither children or parents are failures if the children need to leave early and need more time to adjust.

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