Father and son on the soccer field

Columnist Ken Witmer this week continues his series about fatherhood.

(Disclaimer: In using the term “father,” I am referring to biological fathers, adopted fathers or any father figure.) 

I remember the reaction of my middle son one time when we were eating at a casual restaurant. My wife was holding my youngest son, who was only a few months old, 3-year-old Nat began screaming at the top of his lungs when he did not want what the waitress delivered.

My first response was to tell him to please be quiet and he could share what I was having, but that was a useless effort. So, I picked him up and went outside with him. There, I told him he could scream as loud as he liked, but if we were going to go back inside the restaurant, he could not scream and disturb everyone who was not yelling.

About 15 minutes later, he was convinced I was serious. We returned, my meal was totally cold, but Nat stopped screaming. He did, however, continue to pout, but slowly began to eat. At the end of the meal, I told him he did well and that I was proud of how he acted when we returned to the restaurant.

It was not a onetime incident, and several times as we were raising our children, I ate cold food. But, in the end, they learned the behavioral boundaries when eating out, and they knew I was going to help them maintain the behavior without giving into their screaming.

We love to eat out as a family still, but unfortunately, our hysterical laughter when remembering past restaurant antics is probably as disturbing to other guests as a 3-year-old’s screaming! Through it all, I had learned I had to follow through with what I said would be the response if the misbehavior continued.

At every age, there are behavioral boundaries or limits we fathers must guide our children to understand and respect. Setting parameters of acceptable behavior is not always easily accomplished or maintained.

A baby crying in a restaurant indicates a legitimate need must be met; perhaps a bottle, diaper change or close cuddling will suffice. However, a 3-year-old screaming at the top of his lungs in a restaurant because he did not like what was put before him to eat is not appropriate behavior.

The parent must decide how to respond to the older child’s outbursts in a public place. Ignoring the behavior or asking the child to tell you what you should do to make him happy, and thus stop screaming, may not be the healthy response.

There are those responsibilities of parenting a child that I have come to believe are non- negotiable — particularly when the child is young.

A good example of something that was not negotiable in our family was bedtime. My wife and I determined for the health of our children and our sanity as parents, our children needed to go to bed when told — no nonsense and no negotiating. I credit my wife for demonstrating the great value of establishing the absoluteness of “time for bed,” as done and done!

From when they were little to their mid-teen years, we were blessed that our children never argued and rarely whined about bedtime. And the time after the kids were slumbering became invaluable to my wife and me. It gave us time to get other things done, time to relax and time to be together.

Too often, I have observed friends who were not as structured about their children’s


bedtimes suffer the consequences. Usually, whining and tension ensued after the parent asked, “Do you want to go up to bed now?”

Expecting a child to respond to such a question when they are having fun, or are just being obstinate or controlling is an invitation for disaster. The “No” replies turn into tears of resistance and then into wailing cries of agony and torment that could easily be the soundtrack of a horror movie. Parents become frustrated and angry, and what should be a time when the child ends the evening in peaceful slumber, the last event of the day becomes a completely unpleasant episode.

We learned early, when the child’s needs are all met, and the loving caresses have been delivered, we would say “time for bed” and absolutely mean it! We made the expectation clear, and were gentle but consistent and unwavering.

Bedtime for us was just one of the non-negotiables we knew would be beneficial for the physical, social and mental well-being of the children. Others, such as not taking what does not belong to you, being kind to those around you, and doing the best you can in school, found their way into our parenting list of non-negotiable.

Whatever your list of those non-negotiables you feel are beneficial for your children’s well-being, make them clear, and then remain consistent and gently unwavering.

Kenneth D. Witmer Jr., Ph.D., is a former dean of the College of Education & Social Work at West Chester University. A father of four and grandfather of eight, he and his wife recently moved to the Bethany Beach area.