The Seemingly Impossible Problem of the Small Screaming Child

crying Lucas babyThe story about the diner owner screaming at a toddler who’d been whining and crying while waiting for her pancakes is all over my newsfeed. I’m a little astonished this is difficult to assess. It’s a classic situation and there is actually a load of literature on how different responses net different outcomes with regard to small kids who are crying/having a tantrum/whining/etc.

1. It is well catalogued that a stranger screaming at a screaming or crying toddler may quiet the child down momentarily, but it is the worst response to take. Why? Because:
a. The child may have a good reason for crying (in this case, hunger), and the screaming at the kid doesn’t change their biological need to cry in response to their need.
b. The child may have already exhausted other tactics of communication, may come from an abusive household, or may have difficulty communicating another way (e.g., the kid may be autistic), and the stranger’s screams may only serve to trigger or frighten the kid, or worse, add to the child’s trauma. Rule of thumb: If you’re the bigger person, you have more power, so use it kindly.
c. Ironically, you’re teaching the child that screaming is a terrific response to frustration. So the kid shouldn’t scream but the grownup can?
d. It’s also been shown that being nice can defuse these situations even better than yelling. “You must be really hungry, huh? Would you like these crackers, honey? How growly is your belly right now?”

2. All human behavior is temporal. It changes over time, is dependent on things like mood, learning, wakefulness, context, and so on. By all accounts this child did not enter the diner screaming, she worked up to it. If she exhibited calmer behavior earlier, then she was capable of de-escalating back down to it. Unfortunately for her none of the adults in the room helped to calm her or chose to meet her needs. So the pancake takes forty minutes? Give her a small bowl of applesauce, or some freaking crayons. But identifying this–or ANY–child only via her screaming is to dehumanize her, and I will not concede this point. The kids who take the most crap for their behavior are the ones who aren’t as traditionally “cute” looking, or whose parents are marked by some presumed defect. We do not single out screaming kids just for their screaming. Go back and read the way the diner owner talked about the whole family, and see the code: this is how she justifies screaming violently at a human being. And she’s totally lost the perspective that she was once a child, and that there was probably a moment in her life when an adult was unkind to her, and that she felt something negative from that experience. She has just pushed that onto the next generation. And this child will carry that moment forward in time with her now. What could have been a temporary moment of frustration is now an echo that will last for a while.

3. Just as small kids aren’t always screaming, parents aren’t always horrible or always terrific. Let’s not label them as such. I think I’m a pretty good dad, but I’ve had my poor moments, of course. People base their approval on this woman’s yelling because they have an issue with who the adults were as parents. That is very presumptive, and frankly, not rational thinking. If somebody had an issue with the parents, they should direct their communication to the parents. In all likelihood the owner ignored what was going on while it was escalating and began quickly getting resentful, so by the time she acted, she was also not responding rationally or carefully. Maybe she’s frustrated at having such a busy diner, or too small a space for her to work. Maybe lots of things, but what’s clear is that these weren’t regular customers that she knew, so she felt free to label them and scream at their child. Sometimes I bring my kids to breakfast restaurants and they’re not always perfectly behaved, but if the owner came and screamed at them they’d have two crying boys on their hands and one very upset parent (two if Susanne were with us). But come on, there is no defense to yelling at a small kid when who you’re really angry with is the adult at the table.

4. Small kids are among us, they’re a part of our culture. They’re also very vulnerable. They don’t always know why the grownups around them are tired, or frustrated, or mad, or sad, but they will often ask and they are great at giving comfort. These are the people who will support us all when we are in our senior years and need all kinds of care. I still find it amazing how fast human beings develop from only having one cry to having several that mean different things, to finding words, to forming sentences, to using language to think about the world around us. If children are merely a temporary inconvenience to you, I think your world view is lacking. To me, children are a joy and a fascination, and I get a lot out of interacting with them. When you have an opportunity to be kind to a kid, please try and take it and pass on the good will that has been shown to you.

Also, 40 minutes for pancakes is absurd.

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3 Comments on “The Seemingly Impossible Problem of the Small Screaming Child”

  1. Meema
    July 21, 2015 at 11:12 am #

    I’m in my senior years. I need CARE.

    • evmaroon
      July 21, 2015 at 12:46 pm #

      I’ll help you, Mom! ❤

  2. July 22, 2015 at 8:33 am #

    I’ve been there–except it was when my son was an infant crying in a restaurant. We were doing our best to soothe him, but another customer insisted on pounding on the divider between his table and ours, as if that would improve matters. Not helpful. I doubt there’s a parent out there so in love with their child’s screaming voice that they’re not doing everything possible to quiet them. Now when I hear a kid crying in public, I check to make sure someone is attending them, then I just chill.

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