What do you do when faced with certain sticky situations?
What would you do if you witnessed someone committing adultery? Or heard someone making homophobic remarks?
Would you approach an obnoxious person talking loudly on a cell phone?
It's a quiet Saturday afternoon at a diner in Brooklyn, N.Y., but the tranquility is about to be shattered.
Suddenly from across the room, a paper airplane zooms through the air and lands on an unsuspecting diner's plate. At a nearby table, a pair of kids -- a boy and a girl -- are out of control, their oblivious father paying little attention, his ear glued to a cell phone.
As the minutes tick by, the kids get noisier. First, it's just clattering and whining, then the piercing sound of a toy flute.
Soon they are running around the tables, throwing shredded paper in the air, banging utensils on glasses, bickering and blowing kazoos.
The father continues to ignore them, and diners exchange glances, getting more and more annoyed and astonished by the minute.
Will anyone step up and say something? Does anyone object to the chaos?
Looking the Other Way
Nearly everyone has a story about kids who misbehave in a restaurant, but these cherubic-looking youngsters seem especially out of control. That's because they're actors, hired by "Primetime."
We've supplied the kids with noise-making instruments, asked the father to appear distracted, and instructed the children to behave badly.
Our goal is to see what these diners will do, and look at what might motivate them to either speak up, or stay seated even when they're annoyed.
What do you do when confronted with a situation such as this in a restaurant? Do you say something to the children or the parents? We were surprised by how many diners looked the other way as the children wreaked havoc around them.
Over three days, 65 people were subjected to our kids from hell, and of those, only 15 spoke up.
A handful of them complained to the kids themselves -- telling them to sit down and be quiet -- and a few patrons complained to the manager, who was in on our experiment as well. But to our surprise, only two people confronted the parent.
Colgate University psychology professor Carrie Keating said there's an inherent dilemma when it comes to deciding whether or not to interfere with misbehaving children in a public setting.
"On the one hand, you want to stop the behavior," Keating said. "On the other hand, we have a social norm to not interfere with families and family business."
Range of Reactions
We observed a range of reactions, from anger to amusement.
One man got fed up after witnessing a water-spitting match between the children, yelling, "Hey, why don't you kids straighten out?!"
To the father, he said, "Can you control them a little bit?"
Another group of diners got so angry they considered resorting to force.
One woman said to her companions, "They're running around the table, they're whistling. I'm not eating here anymore! … Can I have that plate of pickles so I can throw it in their face?"
These diners ended up complaining to the parent and the kids, but far more people suffered in silence.
A couple from Belgium watched, mouths agape, as the kids shoveled food into one another's laps. One family sat for almost half an hour amid the din but didn't complain until the end of the meal.
When asked why he didn't speak up sooner, one man explained, "You don't want to have a spectacle in public -- so sometimes you just watch."
Speculation, but No Intervention
What's more, some people tried to surmise what was going on with the clueless father -- even going so far as to develop theories about who he was and to whom he was talking on the phone.
One table was sure he was a single dad, arguing on that cell phone with his ex-wife about time spent with the kids.
Another couple dining nearby believed the father was distracted because he might be struggling with a drug addiction, or trying to overcome a personal tragedy.
Keating said this was just a way to avoid confrontation.
"That was their way of communicating to the other people at their tables why they didn't intervene," Keating said.
But the real watershed moment came when the father asked his fellow diners to look after his kids while he stepped away from the table.
Per our instructions, the kids ramped up the misbehavior, refusing to obey orders to sit down and be quiet.
One diner exclaimed, "You've got to be kidding! Someone call child services right now! Give me a phone. I'll do it!"
Another diner tried in vain to rein in the kids. "Hello! Hello! Hello! Sit down! … Sit!"
But amazingly, when the father returned, no one said a word to him.
Keating said that in this situation, it's important to speak out. "When someone is bothered by the behavior of someone else, it's wise to step up. Because that's what makes a society work."
Well-Behaved Children Welcome
And some restaurants around the country are starting to do just that, by creating no-kid zones or posting signs that threaten to expel noisy children.
One sign at a California eatery declares, ''Well-behaved children and parents welcome.''
In Minneapolis, a restaurant sign reads, ''We love children, especially when they're tucked into chairs and behaving."
In Chicago, restaurant owner Dan McCauley posted a sign that reads, "Children of all ages have to behave and use their indoor voices when coming to A Taste of Heaven," a sentiment that has drawn criticism from some local moms who say it's difficult to control young kids when eating out.
But McCauley has stood his ground, citing incidents in which he observed young kids climbing poles or hurling themselves at display cases, disrupting business and annoying diners. Many of McCauley's patrons applaud his effort to enforce good manners and encourage young children's good behavior in public.
Which brings us back to our Brooklyn diner. When it came to corralling those out-of-control kids, only one diner succeeded -- not a towering adult, but a 6-year-old girl who stepped up and spoke her mind.
After watching the kids' antics for more than 20 minutes and ignoring her mother's suggestion that she not get involved, little Kate Foley tore herself away from her banana split and ordered those unruly kids to put down their noisy instruments.
Even though we'd instructed them to keep going no matter what anyone said, our child actors couldn't help but obey Kate's directive. The restaurant fell silent after three days of pandemonium, and order was restored.