To the couple frustrated by my screaming toddler

Dear Todd and Margo -

I admit, I don't know if these are actually your real names. They're likely not. But when we had the misfortune of meeting you tonight at dinner, you reminded my husband and I an awful lot of Todd and Margo Chester – the snobby next door neighbor's in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation – so that's what I'll call you.

I recognize you because in many ways, I used to be you. I used to get annoyed when my husband and I would go out to a restaurant only to be seated next to a family with kids loud enough to disrupt our night out.

Now, though, the tables have turned. I'm the one with a kid who's a little louder than I'd sometimes like her to be. As a result of that, when I see other families with loud kids, I no longer judge them; I empathize with them. But I know that unless you have kids, that can be hard. So I wanted to take a few minutes and introduce you to my family.

First, there's me, a 30-something first time mom who's also a youth pastor, researcher, and writer. Then, there's my 30-something software craftsman husband and our mostly adorable 15-month old.

You caught us during a bad moment on a good day. We'd just traveled, first via a ferry, then via car. Upon arriving at our hotel in a small resort town, our first objective was food... For us, sure, but also for our ravished daughter. We chose a restaurant filled with food we thought we'd all eat (the toddler included) and headed there, intentionally doing so during an off-hour since dining with a toddler can get a bit dicey.

About an hour into our meal, we'd finished our appetizer and were in the midst of eating our main course. Unfortunately, our daughter wasn't eating as well as we'd expected her to. Hungry and tired, she started to melt down.

That's when you walked in.

When the waiter came by to get your drink order, you asked, very loudly (I suspect so we could hear), if you could move to the bar. Unfortunately for you (and us), the restaurant was small, filled with only about eight tables. Needless to say, there was no bar. You (and we) were stuck.

When my husband and I heard your comment, we felt ashamed. We felt like bad parents who, unable to control our daughter, were disrupting other people. We felt like bad people for daring to take our daughter out in public. We worried we'd cost our waiter (who was crazy nice... So nice, in fact, he even apologized to us for YOUR rudeness) a good tip because you were angry about being seated next to a screaming toddler.

Although we weren't yet done eating, after hearing your comment, my husband promptly left the table, our daughter in tow. I finished eating. When he returned, we switched. I walked across the street to a park, where our daughter could scream all she wanted to without fear of ruining someone else's evening.

Eventually, I brought her back into the restaurant. One of the things that had drawn us there were the dessert crepes, so now we were faced with a dilemma: Order one and subject you to the continued cries of our daughter or leave.

We compromised and ordered a mango crepe to go. My husband took our daughter back to the park while I paid the bill and collected our crepe. That's when I heard you, Todd, say, “What a brat! I don't understand why parents would bring a child like that out in public!”

In that moment, you made me want to cry.

Your words, whether you meant them to, or not, felt like an indictment on my parenting. In that moment, you judged me guilty of bad parenting, despite the fact that you knew nothing about me, my family, or what brought us to town today. (Just so you know, we're on vacation – eating out quite simply because we have no kitchen in which to cook.)

I'll admit that not long ago, I might have uttered a similar comment about a screaming toddler. But here's what I know now that I didn't know before: Toddlers aren't brats.

They're tiny humans with real feelings and emotions who do not yet have the skills or vocabulary to actually communicate their thoughts and feelings with other people. So they do what they can to communicate: They scream. They laugh. They cry. They smile. They point. Sometimes they even throw things.

Those actions don't make my child a brat. It just makes her a toddler. Had you walked in 20 minutes earlier, you would have seen a delightful child, wooing the hearts of everyone in the restaurant just as she'd done all day.

But here's the thing. At 15-months old, it's not my child's job to woo people. It's not even her job to be on her best behavior while out in public. That's a skill she's learning... And she's learning it by watching everyone around her.

Including you.

But tonight, Todd and Margo, you taught my child more about how to throw a tantrum than you did about how to behave in public.

To be clear, I don't need you to parent my kid.

The only thing I need you to do is be nice.

You don't have to like the fact that you're sitting next to a screaming toddler. (Believe it or not, as a parent, even I don't like sitting next to a screaming toddler.)

But please, oh please, recognize we're doing the best we can.

Show us some grace.

Maybe even give us a smile.

Better yet, give our daughter a smile. A lot of times, a goofy grin from a stranger will end a meltdown immediately.

And if you can't be nice, then remember what you learned from watching Bambi: “If you can't say something nice, don't say nothing at all” and keep your comments to yourself.    

Sincerely,

An embarrassed mama who's doing the best she can

Jen Bradbury on Youth Ministry

Jen serves as the director of youth ministry at Faith Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. A veteran youth worker, Jen holds an MA in Youth Ministry Leadership from Huntington University. Jen is the author of The Jesus Gap: What Teens Actually Believe about Jesus (The Youth Cartel). Her writing has also appeared in YouthWorker Journal, Immerse, and The Christian Century. When not doing ministry, she and her husband Doug can be found hiking, backpacking, and traveling.

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