No, it is never okay to scream at someone else’s baby or child. How is this even a debate?

frustrated woman

Frustrated woman courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

I just finished watching the video about the diner owner in Maine who responded to a two-year old’s cries in her restaurant by pounding her fists on the counter and screaming at the toddler. The parents were upset and the diner owner insists she was righteous in screaming at a child because the parents should have taken the baby outside. What?

No, it is not okay to scream at babies– your own baby or other people’s babies. In fact, its actually not okay to scream at anyone. But especially not babies who are much tinier than adults, who are incredibly easy to frighten, who cannot regulate their emotions, who have no ability developmentally to understand that their crying is upsetting to another person, who are expressing their needs in the only way they can and in the way nature intended, and who are completely defenseless. No, it is never okay.

What about the defenses (I have heard them all before in my practice): What if the adult owns the place where the baby is? No. How about if the adult asked the baby to be quiet and he didn’t comply? No. What if the adult is having a bad day? No. What if the parents of the baby do not comply with my request to silence the baby? No.

Helping people who lose it is literally the nature of my business. I counsel parents every day who lose their cool around their children. These are people who may love their children but have exhausted their personal reserves of patience and generally have neglected their self care along the way. The result is a parent who at some point yelled at their child (or even hit them) or finds themselves feeling irritable toward their child or disconnected from them. My job is to help these parents figure out how to feel better and take care of themselves first, to understand their child’s developmental abilities and limitations second, to show to them how they can re-frame their relationship, interactions, and communication with their child through gentle connection, and to help them prevent the recurrence of abuse, neglect, or otherwise less than ideal parenting.

I have great empathy for these clients because I too am a parent, and a flawed one like everyone else. I get upset and angry like everyone else and that is okay. From time to time, I too have to take a break and calm down in order to be an effective and loving parent to twin two-year olds. And I can share that my husband and I didn’t take our children to a restaurant for an entire year because the experience was so unpleasant and unlike any restaurant experience should be and it was obvious our kids were not developmentally ready to sit in a restaurant for more than 15 minutes.

The funny thing about being human is that we were all children once. We are the adults our childhood yielded. If we were raised with empathy and compassion, patience and understanding, we probably don’t yell at strangers or babies in the world. If we were raised with emotional or physical abuse or neglect, we experience more difficulty regulating our own emotions and behavior. In my world, I see many adult and children a like who suffer from emotional dysregulation because of how they were treated as children. I also encounter children who are in great need of gentle correction but whose parents provide none. In those instances, I err on the side of not intervening. However, I am not afraid to gently correct a child who is putting my child in harms way by kneeling down to their level and firmly but gently saying something like, “I know you want that toy but it is not okay to hit.”

So I am disheartened, but not surprised, to read the public comments and hear the pundits defend a grown woman’s apparent loss of control of her own body and behavior when she turned her own feelings of frustration and anger toward a child who was already clearly upset and unable to be comforted. I don’t believe that she believed that her tirade would have the effect of quieting the child because anyone who has ever seen or met a baby knows that yelling at a baby will make that baby cry, for obvious reasons, and not stop crying.

Instead, I think this adult woman is justifying her own incredibly poor self-regulation of her feelings and behavior by alleging the baby or its parents deserve her yelling at them. She takes no responsibility for her own actions. And I am going to dare to say that if she is a parent or has ever been in a relationship with another human being, in those relationships she has lost control of her emotions and body and yelled at other people before. She sees no problem with that so I suspect she was yelled at too, either growing up or today in her home.

Finally, I love boundaries. Boundaries are the things that keep us emotionally and physically safe. Many of us who were raised in emotionally or physically abusive homes have difficulty setting and maintaining boundaries. We allow people to push our limits and push past our boundaries until we snap.

I encourage every individual, diner owner, parent, or whoever to honor their own boundaries. This diner owner could have and should have maintained the boundary she alleged to have set for the family and asked them to take the baby outside if this is a quiet establishment by rule. She was entitled to stay with them until they accommodated the request even if that choice lacked empathy for the child and was the only way she felt safe under the circumstances. She had every right to exercise her right as a private business owner to insist her boundary was maintained as long as that boundary was not discriminatory.

Instead, she waited 40 minutes. Then she snapped.

Lesson learned for us of us, though not her, unfortunately. All the baby learned was that it cannot trust this is a world where it may safely express its needs without harm or shame.