Are You a Misbehaving Parent?
If you want to observe bad parenting in action, start spending time in family restaurants.
I do my share of eating out, and I believe that family restaurants are hands-down the best place to watch parents making fools of themselves in public, not that I enjoy the spectacle, mind you.
Incident #1: The Loudmouth Dad
Last night, my wife and I were eating at a family restaurant. A father and his two small children were sitting in the booth across from us. We weren’t trying to eavesdrop, but we couldn’t help but hear the ugly things this father was saying to his youngest son, who might have been 8 years old, at most.
The young boy was having a hard time picking something out from the menu, so the father barked, “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you ever do anything right?”
The father clearly favored one son over the other, which was obvious because he was very polite to one boy, and constantly screaming at the other, despite the fact that both boys seemed to be well behaved.
Everyone in the place was staring at the father, wondering what his problem was. But most of us had the luxury of quickly forgetting about this guy’s antics once we left the restaurant; there was no escape for those kids.
Incident #2: The Mother Who Treats Her Baby like an Adult
Of course, that was rather tame compared to the incident my wife and I observed several years ago. A couple had brought their very young daughter, who might have been 18 months old, to a restaurant and they couldn’t seem to figure out why the little girl was acting like a little girl and not an adult. The little girl was making gurgling noises, and the embarrassed mother yelled, “I wish you wouldn’t behave this way! You need to learn the consequences of your actions!”
She was a baby, for Pete’s sake. She had no idea what her mother was telling her.
Mom’s behavior might have been excusable if it had only been a stray comment or two, but this mother went on to berate her baby girl, using very adult language, for over a half hour.
Incident #3: We’re Special and You’re Not
And last year at another restaurant, I overheard a family telling their youngest kid that he didn’t deserve to eat with the rest of the family. The whole clan was sitting at the table, enjoying their food, while this 9-year-old sipped sadly on a cup of water.
It’s unclear to me whether this kid was the perennial outcast or if he was being punished for something, but I could see no earthly reason for the father to be so damned rude to him. At one point, the boy asked his father if he could get a re-fill of water, and the father yelled, “Go get it yourself!” and then went back to conversing politely with his wife and older son.
Mystery of the Misbehaving Parent
I’ve got a daughter, so I understand the challenges of parenting in a social situation. And we all know that some parents have the exact opposite problem – instead of being rude to their children (which is bad enough), they allow them to climb all over the place and harass other patrons.
But my personal theory is that some parents are so paranoid that their kids are going to bother someone else that they take their discipline to illogical extremes. And in other cases, the restaurant is like a window into a family’s dysfunction, allowing (or should I say forcing) us to observe their obnoxious behavior.
Part of me wants to take these parents aside and say, “Be nice to your children. Treat them like human beings. Treat them with love and respect. Handle them in an age appropriate way.” And I also want to say, “Discipline should be born out of love, not hate. You don’t have to be rude and obnoxious to your children in order to discipline them.”
For some reason, we think of physical abuse as being more devastating than emotional abuse, maybe because of its overtly shocking nature. For example, one time, my wife and I were going for a jog and we saw a crazed 300 pound mother beating her child over the head with a heavy piece of wood and screaming at him like she was going to kill him. That was abuse. We called the cops. That stuff wasn’t funny.
But emotional abuse can be every bit as damaging as physical abuse. And as parents, we can do better.
We spend a lot of time on this site talking about happiness. And when I see parents acting this way, it strikes me that so much unhappiness starts with our families. Yes, children do need discipline to help them reach their potential and so they can learn to lead happy, rewarding lives.
But children don’t need to be belittled and degraded, in public or otherwise.
December 2, 2007 Sunday at 11:32 pm