Put down the fork – playtime’s over: A survey of Americans’ attitudes towards children in restaurants

16 min

Let’s face it, kids can be the worst. The minute you take them out in public, your sweet, doe-eyed, little angel becomes a raging monster. And restaurants are one of their favorite spots to unleash mayhem. If you’ve ever tried to get two kids to stop throwing tableware at each other for long enough to order, you’ll know what I mean.

That feeling of white-hot embarrassment is well known for parents, but —

Is it justified?

We wanted to find out what Americans really think when they see children in restaurants. Are people universally deterred by little ones dining next to them? Or are we totally cool with parents eating out together with their offspring?

The only way to know was through research. We surveyed over 1000 people and came up with some pretty surprising answers, and some general trends that we didn’t expect. 

For instance, would you imagine that married people would rather share a restaurant with pets than other people’s kids? Wild, right?

Okay, it might not be so surprising. Watching a child “screaming for two hours straight because they had to eat vegetables,” as one person told us, can do serious damage to a date night.

But if you really want to understand the scale of the issue, there are a few things you ought to know first. 

You thought baseball was our national pastime?

Nope, I’m afraid it’s eating out. We all love to head somewhere nice for dinner, whether it’s that little Italian place down the block, or an hour and half drive to the city for the oyster bar you’ve been craving. As much as 64% of the population goes out to eat at least once a week, and we spend over an incredible $602 billion a year doing it. As many as half of Americans say that going for dinner is an essential part of their lifestyle.

Even if you’re a parent, it seems. Our research backs this trend, with 49% of the American parents we asked saying that they either usually or always take their children with them when they go out. Looks like nothing will stand in our way of free breadsticks.

Parents with three or more take their kids to eat out most often, with 27% of this group saying they always did so. We found that parents were actually less likely to always take their children if they had one (21%), or two (17%). See, we promised trends you wouldn’t expect.

But why does any parent take the risk at all? For a lot of folks, going to a restaurant isn’t just about the food. A great meal is important, but according to our results, people mostly choose to dine out so they can relax, celebrate, or spend time with friends and family. 

Bringing the kids is a natural fit. Maybe your friends have children of similar ages, or their grandparents dote on them so much at family get-togethers that you can finally relax and enjoy a martini.

I saw a kid order the most expensive items off the menu, then refuse to eat the food because they didn't like the taste.”

If you do decide to take the whole family along, you better mentally prepare yourself for the check. According to our research, 55% of people typically spend between $21 — $40 per head when they go to a restaurant. Just over 21% spend between $1— $20, and a little over 24% spend a colossal $41 per head when they dine out.

But parents that eat out with their children more often seem to spend a little more in the top category. Of the folks who said they always take their children with them to restaurants, we found that:

  • 14% spend between $1 and $20
  • 54% spend between $21 and $40
  • 32% spend $41 or more

Does that seem like a lot, or am I cheap?

Save those dirty looks for the dinner table

Okay, so some parents like to take their children to restaurants whenever they go, but what about other diners? How do they feel about sharing a meal with a room full of other people’s kids? Does it really bother them?

The short answer is yes. Quite a lot.

We found that, on average, 52% of those surveyed said that they didn’t like the presence of children in restaurants. That number seems big, right? Are more than half of all people really so bothered by eating near a slightly smaller human?

Well, the 65% of people aged under 25 who said that it bothered them to eat with children at the next table made a real impact on the results. Seems like for the young people this is #theworst. 

It’s the complete opposite for those aged 60 and over. In that age group, only 30% told us that children in restaurants bothered them.

Weirdly, people with no kids of their own are less bothered by children when they eat out. This group was evenly split, with 38% agreeing children irritated them in a restaurant, versus 38% who disagreed. Compare that to the parents, with 55% agreeing that kids bothered them, and only 25% disagreeing. Among the parents who agreed:

  • 56% had one child
  • 56% had two children
  • 41% had three or more

 What can it be that bothers them so much?

“I saw a girl screaming at the top of her lungs, lunging at her parent’s faces with her fingers, and kicking her sibling. It was horrible.”

Asked and answered, I guess.

How about people that are married? Surely they’re more tolerant of riotous rug-rats? After all, most of our married respondents had at least one child. I’d think they would be the most understanding about the kind of shenanigans kids can get up to in public, right?

Nope. We found that married people were actually the least welcoming of children in restaurants. A shocking 59% told us that they were bothered by children in the same room when eating out, but then maybe that makes sense. If you've spent all week trying to get your own brood to behave, the last thing you want to deal with is someone else's unruly offspring on your rare night of freedom.

It was actually the divorced or widowed who were the least impacted by the presence of kids. Only a tiny 6% said that children in restaurants bothered them at all.

Is that so strange, though? If you’re divorced or widowed, you’re more likely to have children that are older, maybe with children of their own. Nostalgia surely plays a part here, as does the grandparent effect. Other people’s kids might remind you of good times with your own, or with your grandkids. Seeing them at the next table might be a bonus, and if it all goes wrong you can sit back and enjoy the chaos, knowing none of it is going to be your problem. 

I guess it’s also possible that they’re only meeting the quietest, most polite of children. Sooner or later, though, we all come up against that one kid who won’t calm down, won’t shut up, and won’t take a telling off. 

“I once saw a child of about 4 hit his mother right in the face with a plastic basket because he didn't want to behave.”

Even if you’re lucky enough not to have seen it first hand, you’ll understand how a misbehaving child can spoil the evening for everyone in the restaurant, and I think most parents would agree. Hold on, we have proof that they do!

Over half of all parents said that misbehavior would spoil their evening out. 

Those with one child (62%) and with two (60%) were the most susceptible, while people with three or more (53%) could ride out the storm a little better, but still generally felt like it would have an impact on their experience. Kind of like the impact that asteroid in Armageddon had on Bruce Willis.

People that are married (62%) or in a relationship (50%) both agreed that a screaming toddler at another table would hurt a date night, but we found that single people felt differently, with as few as 41% saying it would spoil their night.

The same holds true for people who spend more. Although a lot of people across the board agreed that misbehavior would ruin their evening, we found the trend went in the opposite direction that we expected when we took the size of the bill into account. Those that agreed a rowdy kid would spoil their dining experience included:

  • 63% spending $1–$20
  • 60% spending $21–$40
  • 58% spending $41 or more   

Turns out that as the average size of a check per head increases, so does your tolerance of kids acting out.

“I've never seen a child misbehave at a restaurant.”

Aww, that’s sweet, but this person was very firmly in the minority.

Unfortunately, seeing children act out is kind of a regular occurrence. So much so that a lot of people have pretty strong reactions to seeing kids in a restaurant.

  • Of our married respondents, 69% told us they would rather abandon their plans and leave a restaurant with a free table than sit next to children  
  • Of those unmarried, but in a relationship, 43% agreed they would leave, too
  • Over half of singles were alike, with 51% claiming they’d leave the restaurant 
  • Surprisingly, those that are divorced or widowed felt differently, with just 12% saying they would do the same. 

We even found that a shocking 64% of parents would leave and go elsewhere if the only free table was next to another family. Breaking that down, we found it included 63% with one child, 66% with two, and 55% with three or more. Can you see another unanticipated trend emerging? Yup, if you have a lot of kids, you’re more tolerant of other people’s. I honestly expected the opposite, but then maybe I’m hard-hearted.

Or maybe I’m just that age. 

Gen Z were the most likely to leave a restaurant on seeing children nearby, at 74%, followed pretty closely by 68% of Millennials, and 65% of Gen X. 

The most reluctant to change their plans because of kids were Baby Boomers, with only 39% telling us they would take off into the night rather than break bread with children at the next table, most likely because older folks generally like children a bit more than the rest of us. They actually enjoy sharing a meal with (grand)kids.

“I watched a kid pig out at a Chinese Buffet and then barf all over the floor. I immediately left the restaurant.”

Amazingly, a lot of people would rather deal with pets than kids. We found that 62% of people agreed that the presence of children in restaurants bothered them more than the presence of pets.

Parents with one child told us they were less bothered by animals in a restaurant than other children, with 64% agreeing. At the same time, only 43% of parents who have three or more kids reported preferring fur babies over real ones in restaurants. 

Younger people much prefer the idea of eating with animals, too. As many as 80% of Gen Z told us that they would rather spend time with pets in a restaurant than children, while  only 32% of Baby Boomers agreed. Looks like most of the older generation is… well, disgusted by the idea of eating around other people’s pets. 

Okay, maybe not disgusted, but our results clearly show that as people get older they become more tolerant of children in restaurants, and less of pets. 

The same is true of divorcees and the widowed, with 73% more in favor of eating around children than animals, whereas only 20% of married people agreed and said that they’d rather deal with Dennis the Menace.

(By the way, only a few states have specific laws that allow pets to be in the vicinity of a restaurant, something that not even the most hardened of diner veterans would advocate for kids.)

But let’s imagine that you take the table, giving a little side eye to the mom (in a friendly-warning, kind of way) and then have your chair shoved every time their kids start running between tables. Do you say something, or use your chicken as a stress toy? 

Making a mess and causing a scene

It’s hard not to notice children if they’re determined to act out. Parents can bribe, threaten or whisper as furiously as they want, sometimes nothing can stop a full-on, pre-teen meltdown over nothing at all.

The question is, how do other diners react? Do they even notice, or are all those angry glares inside your head?

Only 3% of singles told us they often saw kids acting out in restaurants. That puts them firmly alongside the 6% of the divorced and widowed who said they’d often seen the same. 

Those in a relationship (24%) and married (14%) saw this kind of behavior the most, but maybe there’s a good reason behind these numbers.

Why don’t singles see as much bad behavior in restaurants? Maybe it’s because they’re less likely to have kids, or at least less likely to bring them along. We encountered fewer single parents in our survey who took their children to restaurants, but a lot of our married respondents did.

And if you’re divorced, or widowed, chances are your children are probably a little more grown up and responsible. 

We’ve seen that older people are less bothered by misbehavior and notice it less, probably because they don’t have little children of their own. Same goes for those with no kids at all. So that must mean that the folks who get the most annoyed, are actually getting annoyed by their own kids!

It makes sense. If it’s your own child that’s acting out, you’ll be more irritated by them, you’ll notice all their misbehavior, and it’ll spoil your night. Having your evening ruined by someone else’s child sucks, but having it wrecked by your own, that’s worse.

Maybe sometimes you can pretend it’s not happening. Often though, you can’t. 

“I once saw a young boy running up and down the aisles between tables, screaming at the top of his lungs. He would stop at random tables, grab at plates or silverware and pull them onto the floor.”

Yikes. We’ve seen reports of kids throwing food, screaming, cursing, even wandering between tables and begging for scraps off of stranger’s plates. There were also a few mentions of children being rude to staff and destroying restaurant property.

Are parents on top of this kind of behavior? We asked our respondents how often they’d seen parents disciplining their children in restaurants, and overall 34% told us they’d rarely or never seen it, including:

  • 42% with no children
  • 30% with one child
  • 33% with two kids
  • 27% with three or more

I know it’s hard to control a hurricane of small fists and boogers without making a scene, but c’mon, guys, you’ve got to try! But then, as all parents will agree, a lot of the time kids refuse to listen. Don’t feel bad, it’s a scientific fact.

If parents don’t step in, sometimes other people have to.

As many as 75% of American parents admitted that they'd been called out on the bad behavior of their own children in a restaurant. This included 75% of people with one child, 78% with two children, and 51% of parents with three or more.

I guess more kids doesn't necessarily mean more trouble.

Overall, younger people are much more likely to get a telling off over their child's behavior. In every spending category, it was those aged under 25 who got the most blowback from other people when eating out.

  • 78% spending $1–$20
  • 82% spending $21–$40
  • 96% spending $41 or more

All claimed that they were subject to criticism. Maybe that’s to be expected, though, with younger people more likely to have tiny tots that prove difficult to control.

Remember, though, it’s not just about your fellow diners. Someone has to clean that spinach off the floor, and most likely it’ll be someone who works there. 

We asked if people had often or sometimes witnessed restaurant workers being forced to confront parents over their kid’s conduct at the dinner table, and 54% told us that they had. That’s… a lot.

Then again, the less you spend, the less likely you are to find staff who give a damn. For those spending $20 or less per head, 71% said they had rarely seen staff intervene with a misbehaving child, whereas only 41% of people who spent $41 or more told us the same.

People under 25 were the most likely to notice restaurant staff taking action, at 23%, while just 6% of those 60 and over said they had witnessed it happening.

Then again, maybe some restaurant staff are a bit too careful. 

My daughter aged about 3 or 4 touched the Do Not Touch signs. The staff suggested we spend our visit in the gardens rather than the house.

She’ll understand when she learns how to read.

Children and the Corn

It’s obvious that for a lot of folks, children in restaurants (or misbehaving children at any rate) is a big problem.

Perhaps that's why people think at least some restaurants should be adult-only. Unexpectedly, a lot of parents agreed:  

  • 61% of people with one child
  • 58% with two children
  • 47% with three or more

All thought that banning kids from certain restaurants is a good idea. But do you want to hear something ironic? Only 52% of people with no kids agreed. Ignorance really is bliss.

Strangely, people that go to restaurants the most are actually the least likely to want any kind of ban. Only 51% of those going out five or more times a month thought kids should be banned, compared to 65% who only go out once a month or less.

That’s probably because those that go out less often do it for that rare special occasion, like a birthday, or a promotion. Understandably, they want the evening to be perfect, and spending it trying to pick catapulted peas out of their hair aren’t exactly the kind of memories they want to make. Those that go out more will be a lot less bothered. They know that no matter what, good or bad, they’ll get another chance next week. 

But if banning children entirely seems a bit too harsh, how about the idea of having a “kid curfew?”

We found that there was a lot of support among parents for limiting the hours children can go to restaurants. Parents with one child (64%) and those with two (67%) were the most in favor. Those with three or more kids were a little less likely to agree (44%), as were people with no children (58%).

If a curfew still sounds too harsh, then maybe you agree more with the 65% of married people who advocated for separate rooms for families, or the 42% of single people who also wanted to see other people’s kids banished elsewhere in the restaurant. 

“A child dropped a slice of pizza on a dirty floor, then promptly picked it up and ate it”

Clearly, this person hasn’t heard of the five-second rule.

Whether you’re a parent or not, you might be able to appreciate the problems of getting young children to behave responsibly. That’s why we should leave our judgement at the door, and maybe pick up that tiny sock for the stressed out mom in the next booth.  

Above all, remember that it isn’t just kids that can have a bad day. 

“The worst behavior I ever witnessed came from a parent. His children were being a little bit loud, but not disruptive. This father kept berating his children, insulting them and calling them names. Ironically, they were celebrating Father's Day.” 

Wow.

Methodology and Limitations

For this study, we collected answers from 1,031 American respondents via Amazon's Mechanical Turk. Respondents consisted of 42% females and 58% males. 18% of respondents were 25 or younger, 48% aged 26–39, 24% aged 40–59, and 10% 60 or older.

This self-report study investigated the attitudes of Americans to the presence of children in restaurants, and their attitudes towards perceived misbehavior of such. Respondents were asked twenty-one close-ended questions regarding their views and two additional open-ended questions.

Some questions and responses have been rephrased or condensed for clarity and ease of understanding for readers. In some cases, the percentages presented may not add up to 100 percent; depending on the case, this is either due to rounding or due to responses of “neither/uncertain/unknown” not being presented.

As experience is subjective, we understand that some participants and their answers might be affected by recency, attribution, exaggeration, self-selection, non-response, or voluntary response bias. 

Given the gender and age makeup of our large sample, the study can be generalized to the entire population

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