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Steve Emmons

The Tiny but Terrible Tyrants

May 12, 1985|Steve Emmons

The only reason I bring this up is I had breakfast at a coffee shop in Costa Mesa a couple of days ago and it happened again. It made me remember the times it had happened before, and that made me angry.

I was eating alone in a booth. Two women and a young boy, perhaps 4 years old, came in and sat in the booth behind me.

The boy immediately stood up on the seat. His mother told him to sit down, but he shouted at her--and I mean shouted-- "No!"

He began to walk back and forth along the horseshoe-shaped seat. The adults said and did nothing.

He began to sing as he walked. The adults said and did nothing.

He began to shout his song. You guessed it: The adults said and did nothing.

He stopped shouting and began to jump on the seat as if it were a trampoline. At last the adults did something. His mother said, "Sit down." He shouted back, "No!"

The food came, but he didn't like it and shouted his disapproval to his mother. She said nothing. He became bored and began to lunge against the seat back directly behind me. He kept doing it. The adults said and did nothing.

I've seen these children in restaurants before. Their parents let them run up and down aisles, give them spoons so they can pound on high-chair trays, buy them anything they want, then buy them something else when they scream and refuse their first order. Life within 100 feet of them becomes unbearable.

These cowardly parents will do anything to appease their little beasts. I saw a classic example a year earlier in the same restaurant.

A child in a high chair had french fries on his tray, and his father had some on his plate. The child didn't want the ones on his tray; he wanted his father's. He demanded them. The father refused. The child demanded louder. The father refused and threatened punishment. The child threw his head back and screamed. The father gave him the french fries. And later, after the child cried and threw the fries on the floor, the father bought him some ice cream as appeasement.

I don't know why, but the humans in a restaurant try to ignore all this ruckus. Maybe we're trying to honor the unwritten law that it's up to parents to discipline their own children.

But this time I couldn't take any more. For the first time ever, I stood up and approached the offenders.

The instant the child saw me, his face froze, and he sat down and remained motionless. But the women looked at me as if they did not know why I was there.

I tried, and I think I succeeded, to make my voice firm but emotionless. "Please try to control your child," I said. That was all, and I sat down again.

For the rest of the meal, their booth was utterly silent, except for one whispered sentence I overhead: "He wasn't being that bad."

I finished and left, but I spent a long time wondering why some adults endure the mini-monsters they have created.

What leads some parents to cower before their own children? Is it some child-rearing book that warned them against building inhibitions? Some inhibitions are necessary, you know. It was my inhibitions that prevented that child from being murdered.

Is it love for the child that makes parents avoid discipline? If so, they are destroying it by teaching their children to be successful, tantrum-throwing egomaniacs, something not even a mother can truly love.

Is it fear of confrontation? How can you fear a person who is half your height and a fifth your weight? If it comes down to a sincere "I won't!" and an equally sincere "Oh yes, you will!" the smart money is not on junior.

Is it fear of public confrontation? Maybe the parents really do fear creating a scene in a restaurant, but I suspect that junior, using the same tactics, gets his way just as often in private at home.

Maybe these simply are defective parents so weak in their own values that they cannot instill any in their children. Maybe there is nothing they can do about their children. Why, then, are not the waiters, waitresses and restaurant managers doing something about them? Why do I, as I did once, have to pull a 3-year-old girl out from under my table and lead her back to her parents?

I asked the manager of the coffee shop about that. He, asking that I not name him or the shop, said it's not as much a problem as I might imagine. "We probably only get something like that once a week or so."

He said he tries to divert a rampaging child's attention and interest him in something besides his normal terrorist activities. He once even took the lid off the restaurant's aquarium and let a child feed the fish. (I wonder if he counted the fish afterwards.)

Rarely does he approach the parents, although he does it in extreme cases. When he does, they usually are sarcastic, he said. "But I work here, so they think they can do it."

He said he has had far more trouble with adults. One arrived in a limousine and had his driver park it across two handicapped-parking spaces at the door. When another customer berated him for his selfishness, it looked like a fight could develop. The arrival of the police cooled things down.

The man in the limo left in a huff, the manager recalled. "I really don't understand what makes people act that way."

I can tell you. When he was a kid, he got all the french fries he wanted, no matter what.

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