On the news this morning, tucked between reports of world-shaking events both at home and abroad, a simple human interest story made it onto TV screens all across the country.
It was about a two-and-a-half year-old child’s behavior in a busy diner. To the dismay of all patrons, this little girl screamed incessantly for 40 minutes, without effective intervention from her parents.
The screaming, the reporter said, continued until the overwrought owner of the diner pounded her fists on the counter and shrieked, “This has got to stop.” The two-year-old went quiet.
The TV crew, who must have been nearby as this took place, made a feature story by interviewing the patrons one-by-one. Several gave forthright opinions about parenting strategies for such a situation.
One said “Ask the family to leave.” Another said: “Correct the parents, not the child;” another offered: “The manager should have stayed out of it.” No one advised, “Let the child scream.”
This morning’s television newscast reminded me of a lovely dinner my wife and I were a part of several years ago with young parents and their two children, ages four, and two-and-a-half. The setting was a scenic restaurant beside a river.
The younger child, a little girl, was at the same time delightful, precocious with language, and strong-willed, and she had a knack for trying to take command of a situation when its public setting put her parents in an awkward position. But they had figured out a strategy for managing such moments that we were able to witness.
Our host had made reservations by telephone for a table for six but had not said that two of the six would be children. They knew this information would have netted them a table out of sight of the river.
We arrived by car and walked a distance to the restaurant. The father, carrying the little girl in his arms, talked softly to her. He said quietly, “If you don’t do what Daddy says or if you make any fuss in here, I will carry you outside”. This was apparently not the first time he had said those words. He was repeating them quietly now as we walked toward the entrance.
We were hardly seated before the challenge began. My wife and I noticed that at the first contest of wills, long before anyone around us could possibly be disturbed, her father quietly picked the child up and headed for the door.
He told us later that his strategy, as she struggled and cried out of earshot of the diners, was to speak lovingly but firmly to her. When she quieted down, he would ask: “Are you ready to go back in?” To her nod he would say, “Okay, but what will happen if you don’t do what Daddy says? “Out,” she would reply.
He told us that this approach had allowed them to go out on occasion for more than fast food, and they were very careful that their children did not spoil anyone else’s evening.
After a while the two reentered, the little girl’s cheeks wet with tears. There were no further challenges at that meal. We enjoyed a quiet repast together, and it turned out to be a happy time, even for the little girl.
As we were leaving, patrons eating nearby commended our host and hostess for their well-behaved children. Our hosts told us later that on other such occasions, diners had said things like “How on earth do you do that?” Or, “When you arrived, we thought that our meal would be ruined!”
So, what should parents do with a screaming child in a busy restaurant?
Here’s how I see it. You can’t reason with a two-and-a half-year-old child in the midst of such an emotional storm. The child will have the high ground. But a warning in advance that a certain behavior is sure to bring a certain consequence and then a calm but certain carry-through makes for quick learning, even if the treatment has to be repeated several more times as the weeks go by.
Back to the performance in the diner featured on television: a couple of calm trips outside with the child in the father’s arms taken within seconds of the start or restart of the screaming could have worked wonders – for parents, for child, for neglected older brother, and for diner patrons.
Both while watching this incident and afterwards at home, we felt for the parents. And, what a waste of a wonderful teaching moment for the child in the diner. The message to her out of the event should have been that her parents loved her and for that reason couldn’t allow her even at that age to misbehave so as to intrude on other people.
Still, in our culture, there is no clear agreement on this matter. Opinions range from extreme permissiveness and lack of consideration for others in public settings to over-exacting sternness.
But, this much is clear to me at nearly 90 years of age: Parents who set loving boundaries, and children who have been taught to recognize them – even in a crowded diner – raise happier children who live in happier families.