At a crowded diner on a Saturday morning, a family sits down, orders their food, and waits. The toddler with them begins to cry. She doesn’t stop.
What do you do?
If you’re Darla Neugebauer, owner of Marcy’s Diner in Portland, Maine, after about 40 minutes of listening to it, you snap.
Ten minutes after giving Tara and John Carson to-go boxes and telling them in no uncertain terms that either they all had to leave, or the baby had to leave, Neugebauer turned to the family from behind the counter, slammed her hands down, looked right at the baby, pointing at her, and shouted, “This needs to stop!”
Twenty-one-month-old Keira did clam up after that, which Neugebauer considers a victory, but mom Tara Carson said her daughter had only been crying for a few minutes and her child was traumatized by Neugebauer.
“I honestly didn’t think Keira was making that much of of a fuss, so to us, it came out of nowhere. We thought she was joking… It was just too unprofessional for reality,” Carson said. “Also, after waiting so long, I was definitely going to feed my child before going anywhere.”
After Neugebauer yelled, that’s when the baby “started bawling at the top of her lungs,” Carson said. “She was really scared. As a parent, that’s a look you never want to see—abject fear,” she said in an interview. “If the owner had a problem with a quietly crying baby, she should have come to us directly, not passive-aggressively toss to-go boxes at us and storm around as if we should know she needed us to leave before she exploded.”
Neugebauer said she had a busy diner to cater to, and said she’s never yelled at a baby before.
“I usually wait 20 or 30 minutes to let the parents get the children under control, and if they don’t, I ask them to leave, or tell them to take it outside,” she said. “But they were just ignoring her, and they ignored the to-go boxes. So, yeah, I snapped.”
As anyone with a young child knows, going out to eat can be a nightmare. The crowds, the noise, the wait time: it’s enough to make most parents just stay home. (In this case, the parents were on the road. There was no home to get to.) But the other thing about kids in restaurants? Everyone has something to say about it.
Chances of getting toddlers fed and keeping them placated while dealing with the over-stimulation of a packed restaurant can be slim, but not, as a couple food writers found out, impossible.
With enough distraction techniques, toys and attention, most youngsters can keep it together until they get their food, Nevin Martell and Jessica Strelitz found when they took their toddlers to eat at the high-end spots. But much of their good experiences were facilitated by helpful staff who made sure the children’s food arrived quickly, sat the families in areas where the children could be contained (in a booth) and entertained (by a window).
Of course, diners are small and usually mobbed during weekend breakfasts, so a wait is par for the course. And really, is it the owner or waiter’s job to placate a child? Parents and non-parents alike seem to agree that a crying child should not be allowed to disrupt a public setting for longer than a few minutes before the parent takes some action to alleviate the annoyance.
But yelling. That yelling at the baby. (And then a profanity-laden screed on the business’s Facebook page.)
Bryan Voltaggio, who owns Volt, Range and other restaurants in the D.C. area, says he has never seen a child crying for longer than a few minutes in his decade of restaurant experience. He said sometimes keeping children calm has to be a team effort between the parents and the staff, but is easily enough accomplished.
“We try to do the best we can to help parents if there is a child who seems fidgety or who doesn’t want to sit down,” he said. “Normally, the parents look distraught. Not only because their child is a distraction, but also because you can just tell they were really hoping to finish their meal.”
Voltaggio recommends coloring, games, tablets or phones or books as tools in a restaurant’s arsenal against unruly kids.
The Carsons said they tried most of that to no avail and couldn’t remove the child outside because it was raining. Neugebauer claims they were simply ignoring their kid. “I don’t even know if they knew it [the child] was there,” she said, Monday.
Despite all the uproar about both sides, we don’t know the complete scenario, and we can’t say who is right. Is either side completely right? Nope. But is it ever okay for a business owner to take over the discipline of a young child? Is it ever okay for a strange adult to yell at a baby, even one who is causing a scene? Neugebauer says yes, and that she’d do it again, if necessary.
“I chose to yell at the kid. It made her shut up, which made me happy, made my staff happy, made the other 75 people in the restaurant happy,” Neugebauer said on camera. “I may have used poor judgment, but I wouldn’t say I was sorry because it stopped.”
Many customers agree. Marcy’s Diner just had the busiest Monday in the four years Neugebauer has owned it, she said, and many congratulated her on taking a stand.
But here’s the thing in my book: you can’t yell at a baby. Society dictates this. The rule, whether spoken or unspoken, exists on a base level of humanity that most people neither question nor understand. You simply do not yell at a stranger’s baby.
Six months ago, my 6-year-old twins were riding their bikes in our neighborhood. I was two streets down, watching as they came pedaling back to the house as fast as they could, tears streaming down their faces, literally shaking. They told me “some man” had threatened to call the police on them. They had been riding too close to his property and playing too loudly, they said. I asked if he had asked them to leave first. They said no.
The man confirmed this when I marched myself over there in full fury and let him have it. He defended himself much like Neugebauer did, at first. It was his property and his right and he would call the police whenever he wanted.
I responded: With all due respect, absolutely not, sir. You do not yell at children. You do not threaten little kids or babies. You can ask them to leave, and if they don’t, then you can escalate accordingly depending on the situation at hand, but as an adult, you do not let an irritation simmer under your skin and brood about it for so long that you simply lash out.
By the time I was done, he was all apologies, and was probably hoping I wouldn’t call the police on him. But despite this show of grandeur, my kids haven’t ridden their bikes since. They are still scared.
When a strange adult yells at a child, it alters their world. As we can see in the comments, posts and mentions of this one little incident in Portland, it’s a funny one-off to the Internet, and a (likely temporary) business boon to Marcy’s Diner. It’s a humiliation to the parents.
But to the child, it can be life-changing.
Ask the parents to leave. Yell at them if you don’t feel like decorum is important. Escort them out if you have to. But you don’t yell at a child. Remember: humanity.
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