My 1.5-year-old daughter has perfected the skill of tossing food off her high-chair tray. She does so with nonchalance and without a consistent motive.
At home we have a way of dealing with it.
"We don't throw food, Juliet," we say.
She nods at us gravely, as though she understands. Or, she nods at us with a smile and a glimmer in her eye, as though to say, "Oh yes we do."
When the meal is over, we talk about the big mess, and we pick the food up off the floor together. She hunts down each piece of cheese and halved grape to drop into the trash.
We tell ourselves that consistency is key. We tell ourselves not to worry, that one day the message will sink in and her food will stay on her plate.
What we tell other people, though, is trickier.
A few weeks ago we found ourselves in a cafe next to a slightly older couple. Juliet snatched a bottle of hot sauce off the table, and when I tried to take it away from her, she revolted and threw it. It sailed past the head of the husband at our neighboring table, and he and his wife both stared at us in shock. I went to pick the bottle up.
"I'm so sorry," I told them.
"It's fine," the man said. "We have kids."
But the woman just watched me as I slid back into the booth. She witnessed our silence for another moment, and then spoke.
"Now this is what you do," she told my wife and me. She turned to Juliet and said, "You cannot throw a bottle. Bottles are made of glass and they can break and hurt somebody. Do you understand?"
Then she turned back to us. "You need to explain to her what she did wrong so that she learns and doesn't do it again. If you don't tell them what they did wrong, they'll never learn."
"OK," I said. "Thanks."
I knew she was right. And I also knew that had we been at home, that's what we would have said. We were just caught off guard by our daughter's rebellion and unsure of how to react.
But as more time has passed since that morning in the cafe, I've realized that something else may have contributed to our silence. At home, it's easy to feel comfortable with our parenting. Maybe our discipline strategy around throwing food isn't as firm as it could be, but it's consistent and it's something my wife and I agree on and enforce together. Out in the world, though, everyone has an opinion about how to raise children, and I often feel like an amateur. As right as our neighbor's message to Juliet was, it shouldn't have come from her. It should have come from us, and the fact that it didn't was our mistake — but it was also ours to make.
When I think of the husband's response — "It's fine. We have kids." — it strikes me that new parents could use more of that. More understanding looks, more words of solidarity. Because it's easy for the people at the table next to you to know what the right parenting move is, but when it's your moment, and your toddler has just sent a bottle of hot sauce flying through the air of a busy cafe, sometimes you sit in embarrassed silence and save the lessons for your kitchen. And sometimes, that's OK, too.