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Chilling Out About the Portland Diner Incident

With all that is going on in the world, it seems that this is currently among the stories that a lot of people and parents want to talk about most. I've even been asked to offer my thoughts by friends and patients.
07/24/2015 04:28pm ET | Updated July 24, 2016
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"Portland Diner Owner Under Fire for Yelling at Toddler"
-WCSH6, NBC Affiliate, Portland, Maine, July 21, 2015

With all that is going on in the world, it seems that this is currently among the stories that a lot of people and parents want to talk about most. I've even been asked to offer my thoughts by friends and patients.

Let's see...here's the story, or stories, to the best of my knowledge:

Earlier this week, we learned (again and again) that the owner of a Portland, Maine, diner became enraged to the point of going "crazy," slammed her hands down on the table where three of her patrons were having breakfast, jabbed her index finger at a 21 month-old whose wails were increasingly deafening and uncomfortable for nearly everyone within a five-mile radius, and yelled at the toddler to stop crying.

Or:

Earlier this week, we learned (again and again) that overly-indulgent, overly-withdrawn, or perhaps even overly-nonchalant parents ate their toddler's pancakes at a diner in Portland, Maine, and fed their child scraps as if she were lucky enough to be at the table at all, and ignored her whimpering and screaming such that what could have been a lovely, if lively, breakfast for the rest of the patrons, quickly became something akin to apocalyptic cacophony.

In other words, we learned about the same incident, told over and over, from increasingly polarized perspectives. Only the people in the diner at that time actually know what happened, so it isn't fair to speculate one way or another. (Anyone seen Rashomon?)

What do we know with certainty? Everyone has an opinion. That's the one thing we can count on with us humans. (That, and our distaste for long nails dragged across chalkboards).

So, let's start over.

Let's edit the adjectives, the expletives, and the modifiers, and go over the situation again.

Earlier this week, a toddler cried loudly at a diner in Portland, Maine. The owner seemed angry and forcibly thrust her arms down on top of the table, telling the toddler to be quiet. The toddler was quiet. And then, those involved and those who heard of the incident took to their social media accounts and the situation blew up as if we'd all just seen the Kardashians abducted by aliens.

You see, the court of public opinion has never been entirely fair--or entirely kind, for that matter. And now, with social media and all of its minions, that same court of public opinion enjoys a practically endless array of jury members and audio and video evidence, as well as the added-if-not-planned utility of filling our insatiable need for news and gossip in the 24/7 media frenzy that could be deemed a thousand times worse than the sound of a crying toddler.

As a putative expert on child development who is therefore asked from time to time to proffer advice on parenting and the well-being of children, that same social media frenzy has now asked that I weigh in and perhaps take a side.

Of course I'm not going to take a side.

My 15-year-old daughter was done with this story in about eight seconds:

"The parents could have taken their child outside of the restaurant earlier, and the owner could have been nicer. But it's not that big of a deal either way."

I keep struggling with something better than her pithy summing up of the incident, and I keep coming up short.

Here's the best I can do.

Perhaps we can all just chill out.

I know that sounds like a tired and clichéd and maybe even a rude recommendation, but think of it like this: we live in world with all sorts of tools that seem explicitly designed to incite rather than to placate; to promote binding pronouncements rather than calmly-derived conclusions; to implicate our fellow citizens rather than to grace them with the benefit of the doubt we all deserve.

I don't know why the toddler was crying. I don't know why the parents ate the pancakes the way they did. I don't know why the owner acted in the way she admits to acting. I can imagine good reasons for all of these things, but that doesn't mean I'm comfortable with all the reasons I can imagine. It just means that I will resist the pull toward absolutes. After all, we parents can get understandably "turfy" when we're told how to act toward our children.

I can imagine reasons for all of what I've been told happened, but by now, the court of public opinion is in full session--that is, until the next scandalous event rocks our online forums.

So, could it all have been handled better? Sure.

Is it the worse thing to ever hit Portland, Maine? Nah.

The less of a big deal we make about this one, the better. That's the best parenting advice I can come up with.

Steve Schlozman is a child psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School and author of the novel The Zombie Autopsies