Seated at the fancy Grand Hotel, in Mackinac Island, Michigan, I started to sweat. A slight panic attack lurked in the back of my mind as I glanced down at the fine china on the table, the massive assortment of silverware stacked around the place settings, and our two young kids eyeballing them with wonder and mischief.
We were on vacation and, on a whim, decided to bike over to the swankiest resort on the island and fork out a small fortune to stuff our bellies full with the lunch buffet.
It was a gorgeous hotel, full of history, old-school luxury, and expensive decor.
And my kids can't tell the difference between a $1 plate from the Target bargain bin, and the $100 plate they were about to carry back from the buffet line.
Throw in the fact that my kids' squabbling had reached an all-time fever pitch, lunch in this fancy hotel seemed rife for disaster.
I ate my meal in a state of heightened alertness, whispering quick reminders to my kids not to use the butter knife as a drum stick, and to "please use your napkin to wipe off that glob of fruit on your chin instead of your forearm." I prayed they wouldn't spill that outlandishly heavy crystal goblet of lemonade all over their laps under the eyes of all the older folks surrounding us that were probably ridiculously rich and ridiculously annoyed by young children.
And, even though I spent the meal worrying about how my kids would do, we ate our shrimp cocktail, high-end mac and cheese, and piled-too-high plates of the teeniest pastries without much drama. Sure, there were some small mishaps. And the tablecloth didn't fare very well. But we didn't get kicked out, either.
At the end of our meal, as we pushed our chairs back to leave, the woman next to us leaned over and said, "Excuse me."
I thought she was going to let us know the back of my daughter's dress was crammed into her underpants. Or that we'd left a flip-flop under the table.
Instead, I heard her say, "I just wanted to tell you, your kids were so amazingly well-behaved! And I have nine grandkids, so I know what I'm talking about. They're not all like that."
I blushed with embarrassment. My kids gave her a quick "thank you" as they rushed out of the dining room to pounce on the plush, circular sofa in the lobby, and I expressed my gratitude for her lovely comment.
Then I immediately felt ashamed.
Ashamed that I'd thought less of my children. Ashamed that I didn't give them the benefit of the doubt. Ashamed that I thought they would behave like savages, when in reality, that's not how they are.
My kids are good kids. And I need to remember that.
Being in public magnifies the lens in which I view my kids, especially in places that seem (pardon the Southern in me coming out here) high falutin'. Every noise they utter sounds like it's coming through a bullhorn. Every wiggle seems like I'm sitting with a herd (a herd? a litter? a barrel?) of monkeys. Every fork drop sounds like parental failure.
But when I really step back (and I do have to step several yards back) to see my kids for who they are, they are good, well-behaved children.
They remember to use their Excuse Me's, Please's, Thank You's and May I's. They have the ability to remain at their seats and not run around like lunatics anymore. And they listen to me and my husband (for the most part) when we ask them to do something. They are considerate and kind and adorably charming.
And they are children.
I shouldn't expect them to behave like adults, because they are not adults. They are eight and five and behave as such.
Yes, they are curious. Yes, they can be loud. Yes, they are not quite the masters of the fork and spoon and napkin as I would like. But they are not the pack of wild animals my mind makes them out to be.
It's so easy for me to feel as if my kids' behavior is a reflection of not only me as a parent, but as a person. However, my kids are NOT me. They're not even an extension of myself. I need to let them be, and trust that I've given them the tools they need to get by in public. And I have, because they're doing it, and doing it beautifully.
It just took a total stranger to make me see it.
When it comes down to it, that lunch at the Grand Hotel was more my issue than theirs. My sense of paranoia was more about how I thought we would be perceived, than it was because of any history of rotten behavior on my children's part.
In the future, I'll stress out less when we're out as a family. I'll remember that my kids are good kids. Even with fruit smeared on their faces.