I never thought waiting tables at a Moroccan restaurant in Manhattan had anything to teach me about kids. If you are a broke student who lives off a credit card and walks 30 blocks to save on subway fare, yet splurges on cocktails and believes fatherhood potential and artistic talent are the exact same thing, children are sort of not in the picture.
But all it takes is a shifty boss and tough customers who preface everything with, “Do you know who I am!?” You adapt and learn pretty quickly then, and even learn to dodge belly dancers while balancing a tray of hot lamb stew. All of which, surprisingly, prepared me to have kids.
1. Presentation matters
Presentation makes the dish. If it’s savory, sprinkle with herbs. If it’s sweet, drizzle with honey and powdered sugar. Moroccan tea tastes even better when you glide the teapot up and down in the air in long hypnotic strokes as it streams into the glasses, the restaurant owner Aziz taught me. Likewise, when it comes to kids, their hunger strike can be cured by a funky-shaped sandwich or a smiling bunny-unicorn-princess. Odds are, they’ll grow out of it by college.
2. Variety makes the meal
Parents have precious little time to cook. When we do, meals end up mixed into a cocktail of juice, ketchup, Lego, and napkin, so why even try? Yet finding different ways of preparing different ingredients makes it more likely they’ll be eaten, unlike the beige goop on the plate, I learned after dealing with crabby children and adult diners. For instance, Moroccans love the number seven and the seven-vegetable couscous. I bet it’s to up the odds that their kid might give at least one a whirl.
3. It’s how you say it
Restaurant work is about service, not food. Nothing ticked the owner Aziz off more than when waiters said Merguez sausage was made by stuffing lamb into its intestines. Aziz would shove the errant waiter aside, smile, and explain the recipe to the customer again. “My family recipe uses lamb and spices. And casing. Caaay-sing.”
For a parent addressing a grouchy kid, it’s not carrots, it’s bunny food. It’s “My, let me see your big lion teeth!” instead of, “If we don’t brush your teeth right now, the dentist is gonna come and take them.”
4. Stress Management
Now, I’m not advocating this at all, but when it came to stress management, Aziz took a moment for himself—and for his special Moroccan hookah. He’d whip out the hookah when he argued with his business partner. He’d pass it around to staff on slow nights, when waiters and entertainers got little in tips (he didn’t pay wages). Soon enough, everyone went home convinced their job was the most glorious thing ever, even if they’d just worked six hours without a break and made 40 dollars.
I don’t need to explain why hookah at work is a bad idea. But what is crucial for parents is the ability to take time off and recharge in healthy ways. Even if it’s just a few deliberate, pre-scheduled minutes a day of reading, meditating, a walk, or a meaningful conversation with another adult. If we don’t make time, nobody else will.
5. Stages of distress
They may seem never ending, but toddler tantrums ultimately reach a breaking point, just like the dinner rush eventually mellows out. At some point, sweaty staff (and parents) stop prancing around the dining room, running on adrenaline, coffee, and the need to placate a diner who keeps spitting in his plate and sending it back, shouting things.
6. Oh, and the right way to answer, “Do you know who I am?”
Of course I do!