When did the recent encounter between two parents with a fussy toddler and a Maine diner owner with a fiery temper get out of control?
By now, you’ve most likely read or seen something about the incident: On a rainy morning in a resort town, two parents took their toddler to a diner, where they waited for a table, and then waited to be served. The food arrived; the child grew fussy (her mother said she was “antsy” and “fussing”; the diner owner described it as screaming “at the top of her lungs”). The diner owner asked the family to leave. When they didn’t, the diner owner yelled at the child directly. After the parents left, the mother posted angrily on the diner’s Facebook page; the owner responded, and the entire debate shot, as these things sometimes do, into the Internet stratosphere.
There are so many moments when someone could have done something differently. (As a parent who has dined in many a resort area with a toddler, I often thought it was the moment when we pulled out of the driveway.) Parents need to be aware of when their children’s behavior is disturbing others, even if it seems unremarkable to us; the people around families need to be willing to cut them a little slack, especially in a challenging situation. We all, parents and nonparents alike, need to start from a place of empathy when we approach one another. If we blow it anywhere along the line, we need to be willing to apologize.
A crowded diner on a rainy summer morning in a resort town is admittedly a difficult place to practice any of those rational suggestions. Anyone could be excused for letting a situation escalate; we all make dubious decisions under pressure.
But Facebook: ah, Facebook. Social media. There we are, those of us with our smartphones, with the ability to publicly announce our dissatisfaction at our fingertips, and then to respond.
The moment we walk away from an encounter that has left us unsatisfied, with the retort we really wish we had thought of or dared to say at the time hanging from our lips, we can gleefully press post or send or tweet and it’s out there! We’re vindicated, or satisfied, or we’ve vented or something. Anyway, we’ve done something, and maybe the world will change or someone will feel sorry, or revenge will be had and at least people will hear us, will know how we feel, will perhaps feel as bad or angry or frustrated or helpless as we did.
And that is the moment when we really could let the cold light of day shine on our words and actions. Yes, things have not gone as we would like. Other people have behaved badly. But have we possibly contributed, or are we about to make things worse?
I’ve been poised to vent to the world a dozen or more times this summer, what with the usual traveling delays and problems (like winding up as the only adult with three children who wanted to stay and watch a Shakespeare play at the Globe Theater and one who very badly wanted to leave, while seated next to a very angry and unsympathetic fellow audience member who complained to the ushers). But while the rant-at-our fingertips offers one release for the emotions that rise up when something that was supposed to be a treat turns out to be a torment, getting a handle on ourselves in the physical moment provides a different kind of satisfaction.
Traveling with small children is hard. Running a busy diner during a morning rush is hard. But when you find yourself out of the heat but with smoke still pouring from your thumbs as you pound out angry words, if you’re tapping in expletives or euphemisms with the fiery righteousness in your eyes reflected in your screen, stop, look up and breathe.
Maybe the rain that is cooling off the air can cool off your soul. Maybe your shift is over, and it’s time to put down the anger as well as the trays. Maybe you can walk back into the situation and make some peace; maybe you can find a way to take the anger someone else has loaded onto your screen and turn it into something else.
I wasn’t in Marcy’s Diner that morning; I can’t know what happened there. I was able to read the Facebook posts and observe all that followed, and I think the Motherlode commenter Banty Acid Jazz has a point when she notes that this is “what happens when there are no adults in the room.” Or no adults on Facebook.
It’s hard to be the grown-up. I’m not saying I’ve always managed it myself. It’s hard if you’re in the wrong, and hard if you’re in the right. And always easier in the hypothetical.
What would you have done differently?