The recent episode at Marcy’s Diner in Portland, Maine—when a 21-month-old toddler’s extended bout of crying caused the diner’s owner to kick out both the child and her parents—highlights the difficult decisions every parent must make when taking a young child into a public place. Both the parents, Tara and John Carson, and the diner’s owner, Darla Neugebauer, made poor decisions that day.
First, Neugebauer crossed a line. Neugebauer and Tara Carson disagree on whether the crying went on for an hour or only 10 minutes, and on whether other customers were bothered by the noise. But it doesn’t matter. No non-parent—in this case, the diner owner—should ever take it upon themselves to discipline or correct someone else’s child without first getting permission from the parents. If I were in the owner’s shoes, I would have respectfully requested that the parents do everything they could to console their child. And because I love children and can usually get them to calm down, I would have offered my own services. Regardless, Neugebauer’s justification that yelling “This needs to stop!” did, in fact, cause the toddler to stop crying does not meet the standard of parental consent.
On the other hand, every parent should try to keep their child from having an adverse effect on those around them, and it doesn’t seem like the Carsons made a good-faith effort. No child is perfect. Even mild-mannered toddlers will throw tantrums in front of crowds of people. In my experience—which includes raising seven children of my own—the first step is to try consoling your crying toddler, and if attempts to calm them fail, the second step is to take them outside. Allowing a child to cry for nearly an hour in an enclosed public space—if this version of the story is true—isn’t courteous to anyone in the diner, including the owner.
Parents need to prepare a game plan before their child throws in a tantrum in a restaurant. For instance, when my wife and I went shopping with a young child (or two or seven), one of us would be prepared to take a child out of the store in the event of a meltdown. This duty usually fell to me, and I would go to the car with my upset son or daughter until the storm passed. Then we would go back into the store. We had a very simple game plan, and it worked for us. Your game plan should depend on the temperament of your child, the atmosphere of the public place you’re in, and the number of people around you. But since these situations are inherently stressful—it is all too easy to succumb to anger or embarrassment—do have a game plan in place before you find yourself mid-way through a meltdown. It will minimize your stress as a parent, serve your child’s learning needs, and show courtesy for your fellow shoppers or brunch patrons.
In my new book The Intuitive Parent, I call for a return to instinct-driven parenting. Think of it less as a one size fits all set parenting style, like the recently popularized “free range” and “helicopter” parenting trends, but rather a common-sense approach to navigating today’s panic-inducing claims about child behavior and development within your own parental comfort zone. Drawing on my research as a professor and specialist on child developmental delays and disabilities, and on my personal experience as a father, I have found that the recent craze to push children to behave or develop in one way or another almost certainly backfires. A better solution is to use your instinct as a parent to its full advantage, finding a middle ground between encouragement and discipline that suits your individual child.
The situation between the Carsons and their two-year-old was a missed opportunity for intuitive parenting. Some parents seem to have the mistaken belief that setting limits or saying “no” to a child is harmful to their psychological development. In truth, a toddler must learn that there are certain places, like a busy street, and certain activities, like touching a hot stove, that won’t be allowed. Imposing limits on a child’s behavior, without disciplining to the point of abuse, does not psychologically damage the child in any way. In fact, I would argue that consistent consequences are a key component of intuitive parenting, because they provide valuable feedback to the child’s developing brain. That might make it less likely for a tantrum to interrupt your next family breakfast, and less likely that you’ll get interrupted by a diner owner—which is best for everyone.
Stephen Camarata, PhD, is a professor in the department of hearing and speech sciences and a professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. He is a children’s speech expert and the author of THE INTUITIVE PARENT: Why the Best Thing for Your Child is You.