The other night, after shopping at the IKEA in Canton, we (being me, my wife, and our toddler son) stopped for dinner at the local Denny’s. There seemed to be at least one child at every table, no doubt largely because of the policy that children get free meals when accompanied by an adult.
Our booth was separated from another one by a pane of glass. On the other side of the glass another family was seated shortly after we’d been seated. The parents were younger; the boy appeared to be a few months older than ours. For ease of exposition, let us call these the Smiths.
The only other diners in our section of the restaurant was another family seated two booths away from us, consisting of two adults and three children ranging from infant to perhaps 5. The two older children were boys, the youngest was too nondescript to tell. These shall be called the Joneses.
Had it not been for the Smiths, I probably would have had strong words with Mr. Jones.
As far as I could tell, the Smiths were the same sort of parents we are, albeit perhaps not quite so permissive. Junior Smith and Kidlet spent a good deal of time interacting through the glass, with Mr. Smith occasionally suggesting Junior needed to focus on his meal. The boys, of course, were fairly oblivious to anything other than each other.
Kidlet did inform me that he needed to go for a walk, but instead of wandering aimlessly, he went to the restroom and insisted on some paper intended for drying hands. He took that back to the table, and the boys passed it to each other over and under the glass for quite a while.
It was quite a joy to watch, and I was more than grateful for an extended period where my son was sitting in a restaurant booth playing politely instead of either struggling and whining or wandering the grounds.
Meanwhile, over at the table of the Joneses….
The booth was behind me, so I heard much more than I saw. V informs me that it was the eldest child that was making the most noise. The child would scream. The father would yell back. Some kicking on the boy’s part was involved, and I believe he bit his mother. I don’t know if there was any neuroatypicality involved. Perhaps; both of the boys seemed engaged and made eye contact with me later when they passed to pay their bill and leave, but I’m not a pediatrician. He could have been autistic or something related, or he could simply have been overhungry and a brat. I’m unclear on that, and it’s irrelevant anyway.
Mr. Jones informed his screaming son that the food was coming, but that if he didn’t behave, the food would be sent back. Or Dad would eat it. When the child kicked, Mr. Jones said, “I don’t want to sit next to you.” And on in that vein.
Ms. Jones, for her part, seemed more superficially benevolent, but there was a dark undertone in her words, too. At one point, she told the behaving child that she couldn’t attend to his concerns because his brother was causing trouble. She said “good job” so often that it became meaningless.
I tried hard to keep in mind that I was only seeing a slice of this family’s life, and only a slice of the life of the Smiths. I wanted to take Mr. Jones aside and tell him that each time he rejected his son, it was another wedge between them, another reason for him to act out. It seemed just so cruel. I wondered if I’d ever said such mean things to my son, or if I ever would. I’ve said things in moments of anger that I later regretted. Too many things.
That night, I had a dream about some things that have been preying on my mind of late, but the part that applied to the Denny’s incident (as well as to other things) was when I yelled at someone in my dream, saying, “I don’t need your judgment. Good parents don’t need judgment because they already judge themselves more harshly than you can ever imagine, and bad parents don’t need judgment because they don’t care about it anyway.”
If Mr. Jones is the sort of father that he appeared to be from that slice of time, then confronting him wouldn’t have done any good. It would have just steeled him up to his notion that his son really is more trouble than he’s worth. I know how it feels to perceive oneself as the son who’s more trouble than he’s worth. I don’t want to wish that on anyone. And Mr. Jones hadn’t even come close to any lines that would have justified involving the authorities. He was a jerk to his son. That’s not illegal.
If Mr. Jones is, on the other hand, a more decent father than his behavior that night would illustrate, if he had honestly been off his game, well, I know that feeling, too. I wouldn’t need some stranger telling me what a jerk I’m being. It would just make me feel worse.
So, I’m thankful for the Smiths being there. They provided enough distraction that Kidlet didn’t need to be exposed to the harshness at the Jones table, and enough distraction that I could disengage much of my own thought patterns.