A few weeks ago, my husband and I went to have dinner at our local Olive Garden restaurant. Across the aisle, a husband and wife and their young son were seated at a table for eight. Apparently, it was the child’s birthday. Also apparently, the wife had done something that upset the husband. What began as snide remarks grew into a full scale argument. I could hear this man spit insults at his wife in a venomous tone, gradually getting louder and more irate. He stood up and stormed away from the table, only to return angrier than he had been before. At one point, he placed his hand on the back of the child’s chair and leaned over the child’s shoulder to yell at his wife. Meanwhile, the child sat despondently between them, intensely focused on the zipper of his coat, as if trying to block out what was happening. At one point, another adult (perhaps a nanny) slipped next to the child to offer a few words of comfort and to place a party hat on the child’s head.
At NCPC, I develop materials on teaching children how to resolve conflicts without anger and violence. I have written tip sheets to parents on how they can help their children learn how to manage their anger, articulate their feelings, and talk through problems. But perhaps the most important thing parents can do for their children is to act as positive role models. Of course, this is easier said than done. Most of us, even as adults, struggle to control our own anger and frustration. We sometimes are at a loss for words to describe how we feel and what we want in a stressful situation. It can be hard to name a specific action that will help us move beyond bitterness and toward a resolution. But just because the task is hard, doesn’t mean we can avoid our responsibility to try. Especially when children are watching.
The scene in the restaurant brought up another issue for me—what should someone do when they witness this type of behavior? What is the responsibility of the bystander? The Olweus Bullying Prevention Group (named after Dan Olweus, who in the 1960s first studied and defined bullying and its impact on children) identifies six roles that bystanders play. One role is the “disengaged onlooker.” In other words, these are people who ignore what is happening. They feel that they have no business intervening in the situation. I think that many people take on this role when they see conflicts arise among members of another family. They don’t want to become involved in a “private” matter. But what happens when a child is being hurt by that conflict? Clearly, the child shrinking against the back of his chair was being hurt by witnessing his parents’ horrible fight. I was getting sick to my stomach listening to such anger; I can only imagine what the child was feeling. I chose to report the argument to the manager of the restaurant, who promptly spoke with the couple and said that they would be asked to leave if they continued fighting. The arguing couple calmed down somewhat, and the manager stayed close to the table, ready to intervene if the fighting escalated again. As she said to me, “You’ve come out to enjoy a nice dinner. Not witness an episode of Jerry Springer.”
I still think about the behavior of those parents in the restaurant, and I wonder how that child will look back on this birthday when he is older. I also wonder how many days he hears his parents arguing as they did that night, and if they yell at him the way I saw them yell at each other. It’s up to all of us to show young people a better way for managing anger and conflict. It’s also up to us to do what we can to help if we see or believe a child is being hurt. We won’t get it right every time, but at least we can try.