I knew it was going to go bad from the moment we were seated. The restaurant had a play area right next to our table, but instead of it being a welcome distraction for our boys while we waited for our food, they instantly started fighting over a wooden fire truck. We brought them back to the table, gave them a stern warning, and let them back out to play -- at which point they began fighting over a dinosaur.

An hour later my husband and I were back at the house, staring at each other in mute frustration. Our kids had acted up, fought constantly, refused to eat what they ordered, and generally behaved abominably while we'd tried to enjoy a family meal, and on any other night, we would have put them both to bed early without further discussion.

The problem was, we were on vacation. In a rented home in Sunriver, Oregon. And we'd planned to eat cupcakes, play games, and let our youngest son open one of his birthday presents a day early. So now what? What punishment fit the crime?

It's one of the most maddening things in the world when children tank their own long-anticipated, super-fun plans. Because it doesn't just suck for them, it sucks for everyone. My husband and I had shelled out a lot of cash for our family to spend a weekend together in the mountains in celebration of our son's fifth birthday, and everything had been going so well. We'd been sledding, had epic snowball fights, visited a museum, and savored hot chocolates in front of the fireplace.

Then, on our last night there, it all fell apart in that restaurant. I'm not exactly sure where we fall on the parental strictness scale, but I'll say this: we don't tolerate bullshit public behavior from our boys. Acting up at home gets you in trouble, but acting up in a public place is a guaranteed stint in the doghouse. Their combined brattiness had been serious enough to lose ALL privileges for the rest of the night, if not longer.  

Well, it normally would have been, anyway. When we got back to the house that night -- and sent the children downstairs to Sit and Think About What They'd Done -- my husband and I couldn't decide what to do. Should we carry out the threat we'd issued in the restaurant, which was that if they didn't shape up, no one was getting any presents, and as for cake, FORGET IT? We had to, right? What kind of message does it send to issue a threat you don't follow through on?

The problem was, we both felt so crappy about the evening going down in flames like that. Here we were on vacation, with this whole family-togetherness plan. The birthday boy had been falling over with excitement about being able to open a gift. His brother was equally giddy about making popcorn and playing a family game of bingo. The house was warm and cozy and I just wanted to do everything we'd been talking about doing. I didn't want to sit, angry and stewing, while the kids were banished to their rooms.

"I'll support whatever you want to do," my husband said.

"But I don't know WHAT to do!" I wailed.

And god, I really didn't. I couldn't parse the difference between what I believed was the right thing to do discipline-wise and my own selfish desire to avoid a unpleasant end to the evening.

So here's what I did: I made the boys clean. I made them unpack their suitcases and re-pack them, neatly. I made them sit at the kitchen table together while the 7-year-old wrote I'M SORRY 25 times down a piece of paper, and his brother dutifully attempted to scrawl the same. After about 20 minutes of ordering them around like a drill sergeant, we had a stern family discussion about behavior and expectations.

Then, we let it go. We did everything we'd planned. Popcorn, games, cupcakes, the gift -- all of it. We had a really, really great time. I have absolutely no idea if that was the right thing to do, the wrong thing to do, or if, in the long run, it really doesn't matter.

Here's my question for you: what do you do when you're faced with a similar situation? When kids have awesome plans, but they act badly enough to lose their privileges for those plans?


Image via Linda Sharps