I Know Nothing About… Tantrums

How could you say no to this face?

I got a surprising amount of sassback on my meltdown post.  Sure, most of my commenters related to the complete irrationality of my kids’ tantrums, but some took it as an occasion to attack my parenting skills.  What interested me most is that I got it from both sides — those who think I’m too hard on my kids — “Sheesh give some freedom dad” — and those who argue I’m too lenient — “You’re the adult, ACT LIKE IT. Sheesh.”

Well, at least they agreed that I deserve to be sheeshed.  It’s a starting point.

OK, fair enough.  Proclaiming myself a “Superdad” certainly invites people to test my invincibility.  But hey, even Superman has kryptonite.  Mine happens to be tantrums.  And potty training.  And getting my kids to eat vegetables.  (And about a thousand other things, but I’ll save those for other posts.)

You think I’m in over my head when it comes to tantrums?  Well, you’re right.  I know nothing about them.  Nothing at all.

Except for the following…

A tantrumming child is not necessarily a sign of a bad parent.  I admit that before I had toddlers of my own, I’d sometimes see a kid melting down in public and think, “Why can’t those parents control him?”  I know better now.

Still, those judgmental jerks are out there, and if your kid throws a tantrum at the pumpkin patch or at IHOP, you can expect them to make themselves known.  The nicer ones just shoot you judging looks.  The real assholes think it’s their job to teach you what you’re doing wrong.

Their technique is always the same.  They bypass you, the parent, and crouch down in front of the kid.  Head tilted to one side, they crank the empathy up to a thousand and pout, “Oh no, little guy!  Why are you sad?”

Oh right!  Why didn’t I think to ask my kid why he was sad?  Thanks, Dr. Spock!

Bad news, genius.  Chances are my 2-year-old isn’t going to calmly explain to you that he thinks he should be able to stay in the pool all day even though he’s shivering, he’s hiccupping from all the water he swallowed and we’re running late to pick his other Daddy up at the train station.  The whole reason we’re in this mess is that his little mind isn’t capable of rationalizing any of that yet.  All he knows is: “Pool fun.  Daddy took me out of pool.”

I’d tell you that myself, but you didn’t ask me, jackass.  Go ahead, try your way, though, because you know what always helps kids relax?  Having to talk to complete strangers.  Yeah, that’s like a trip to the spa for them, totally clears their minds.

If my kid does stop crying for a second, it’s because he’s so terrified of this crazy lady who’s all up in his grill that he’s forgotten why he was upset.  So now the crazy lady thinks she’s the Tantrum Whisperer, and I’m the worst parent in the world.

Two seconds after she walks away, the tantrum starts up again, and now we’re a minute later to pick Daddy up.

But thanks, stranger, because clearly, you know what you’re doing.

Tantrums strike without warning.  One second, my kid is skipping merrily along, quoting Muppet one-liners and telling me, totally unprompted, how much they love me.  The next, they’re willing to stake our entire relationship on whether or not I’ll give them a packet of Dora fruit snacks, like, immediately.

Most of the time, I don’t know the tantrum is coming until after it’s begun.  So I’ll make a decision along the lines of, “No, sorry, I don’t feel like listening to that Katy Perry song for the 10,000th time today,” thinking that’ll be the end of the debate.  Instead, my kid melts down for half an hour.  If I’d known that would be the outcome, I would’ve just said yes and suffered through “Part of Me” yet again, but because I said no, I’m forced to defend my decision.  Once the tantrum has started, I don’t want to give in, or I risk giving the kid the message that acting like a lunatic gets you what you want.

And sometimes it does, because dammit, it’s just a Katy Perry song, and if this kid doesn’t stop screaming, I’m going to drive the car into a tree.

There is no single cause of tantrums.  Tired kids tantrum more often, no doubt, but that doesn’t mean the solution is to put them to bed.  Sometimes, the kid is bored, they’re testing their boundaries or they’re struggling to express something their little brains just can’t process.  Very often, though, they just really, really want more M&Ms.

There is no single way to defuse tantrums. 

I yearn for the days when distraction was a foolproof antidote to the common tantrum.  If my kid wanted to play with, say, a steak knife, the argument would go something like this:

“I want the knife!”

“No, the knife is dangerous.  You can’t have it.”

“I want the knife!  I want the knife!  I want the knife!”

“How about this train instead?”

“Ooh, a train!”

As they’ve gotten older, the “How ’bout a train?” technique has been working less and less.

Sometimes ignoring them for a while helps.  Other times, what they need is to be cradled and soothed.  Sometimes, nothing works – even giving in.

The kid just might need to throw a fit, and if you give him what he wants, he’ll find something else to complain about, or he’ll complain about the way you gave in.

One time, Bennett wanted me to play a song on our car ride home.  I said, “I can’t search my iPod for your song out right now, because I’m driving, and it’s not safe.”  As soon as we got home, I offered to play him the song, but that apparently wasn’t good enough.  “No!” he screamed.  “I want to hear it IN THE CAR!”

Tantrums are like viruses. Find a way to fight them and they mutate into something even more inscrutable.  You can lessen the symptoms, but you’ll never cure them.

There are no winners in a tantrum.  Sometimes, I give in to my kids, but do they smirk and gloat over their victory?  No, they’re usually too exhausted and frustrated for that, and they still need a hug.

Sometimes, my kids calm down on their own, but that doesn’t make me feel like some kind of champion.  It’s hard to watch a kid struggle through a tantrum, and it can be devastating to have someone you love so much scream in your ear for what seems like hours before they finally give up.  No matter how the tantrum shakes out, I won’t be popping champagne for my parenting skills at the end.

If you are keeping score with tantrums, I’m pretty sure you’re doing it wrong.  This isn’t a battle of you vs. them.  It’s you and the kid together, versus bedlam.  You’re helping them through their tantrum, teaching them to deal with emotions they’re not quite equipped to process and showing them where the boundaries are.

Tantrums aren’t competitions, they’re (ugh, overused phrase alert) teachable moments.

Like I said, I know nothing about tantrums, but I have to believe my kids are learning something from them, that each episode brings them closer to an understanding of the world and why I set the limits that I do.  Over time, they’ll learn that there are good reasons why Daddy says no, and they’ll discover more productive ways to petition for the things they want.  If I do my best to help them through this phase, then eventually, they’ll outgrow it and become the mature, rational, productive little citizens I want them to be.

Right?  Right????

Train Wreck

I’ve barely been in New York a week, and already, I’ve made two enormous enemies.

It started at toddler storytime.

A lady with a Barnes & Noble nametag took to the stage and warned us that she was very soft-spoken.  It seemed strange to me that they got the one soft-spoken person in all of Yonkers to host an event that hinged on holding the attention of two-year-olds.  Her point was that if the kids got bored with her, she wouldn’t be offended if they got up and walked around.  OK, thanks for that.

My kids made it through one book, then lost interest during some snooze-inducing Caldecott winner.  (It was a bedtime book, so maybe that was the desired effect.)  They got up and started to wander.

The children’s section at Barnes & Noble, if you’re not familiar, is full of fun stuff for kids to do, all of which is designed to make them tell their parents, “I want to go to Barnes & Noble!”, after which you’ll walk out with an armful of Dora the Explorer TV tie-ins and maybe a $25 Madeline doll.

Bennett quickly discovered the main attraction – a large wooden train set.  A couple of other boys were already there, pushing train cars around the tracks.  There were only 4 cars to play with, and each of the boys had 2, so all Bennett could do was stare at them longingly, waiting for a turn.

The kids’ moms were leaning nearby, deeply immersed in their own chat.  One of them started to instruct her son to share with my kid, but the other one cut her off and told her not to bother.  Seriously, she told her friend not to encourage her child to share.

I was furious.  It was so rude.  It demanded a comeback.  So I took a move right from page 1 of my social playbook… I sheepishly slinked away and herded my kids back to storytime where I could brood.

The other toddlers were now doing the Hokey Pokey, while the quiet lady was softly instructing them from Elmo’s Hokey Pokey book.  But while they were putting their left foot in and, subsequently, out, I was silently shaking my rage all about.

Why did I cower to that mean mom?  That was a teachable moment if ever I’d been presented with one, and I’d blown it.  Instead of showing my kid that I value sharing and sticking up for yourself, I’d let a bully get the best of me.  Who did she think she was?  If my kid wanted to play with Barnes and Noble’s trains, he had just as much right as her kid.

My kids lingered at storytime for ten minutes or so, but Bennett was itching to get back to the trains.  So eventually, I let him go.  I couldn’t believe it, but those same two boys and their moms were still hogging the four measly train cars.

Round Two had begun.

One boy was losing interest, and he dropped his trains.  Bennett saw his opportunity, so he waddled over to pick them up.  But the kid’s mom saw Bennett coming and — yes, this really happened — yanked the trains out of Bennett’s reach.

A grown lady.  A little boy.  And while she was doing it, she said, “Oh no!  I’m not dealing with that!”  (As if to imply that she feared her son might melt down if he saw someone else playing with the trains.)

Naturally, Bennett started crying.  Loudly.

I wasn’t going to take it this time.  The rematch was mine to lose.

“I’m sorry, Bennett,” I said, consoling my child.  “They don’t want to share.”

That’s right.  I’d moved onto page 2 of my social playbook.  I went passive-aggressive on that wench.

Bennett cried louder.

“I know,” I went on.  “It’s not nice, but some people don’t share.  Not everyone’s nice.”  I was about two feet away from the woman at this point, and by now a small crowd had gathered, because this was far more interesting than the regularly scheduled in-store event.

Bennett swung his arm toward the trains and shouted, “MINE!”

I corrected him.  “No, it’s not yours.  It’s the store’s.”

That’s when the mean mom finally spoke up.  “Actually, it’s ours.  We brought them from home.”

Um… what?!

“We brought ours and that boy brought his and that boy brought his.”

I looked at the trains.  Each boy’s were different, backing up her story.  Suddenly, I realized I was the crazy one.  My outrage was based on the assumption that the trains were communal property.

“I’m sorry.  I thought they were the store’s.”

“No, the store used to have some for the kids to use, but people kept taking them home.  Now you have to bring your own.”

Bennett didn’t understand any of this.  He was now in a full-on meltdown.  I was embarrassed, people were watching.  It was not pretty.  The mean mom motioned toward a shelf of train cars for sale.  “Sometimes we forget ours and we have to buy a new one.”

Yes, that was the answer.  I could buy a train and put an end to all of this instantly.  It was that simple.  Then everyone would be happy — Bennett, the mean mom, Barnes & Noble — until some other kid wanted to play with Bennett’s train and suddenly I was the one thinking, “Screw that kid.  We paid for it!”

I couldn’t do it.  I couldn’t buy into the system.  Instead of a train, my kid was getting… an explanation.

Bennett screamed as I rationalized the scenario for him.  “You have to bring your own trains.  I don’t think that’s a nice policy, but that’s what Barnes & Noble decided.”  That’s right.  Now I was going passive-aggressive on a faceless corporation.  Not that the kid could hear me over his own wailing.

All around me, moms and employees were surely thinking, “Just buy the kid a damn train.”  It’s then that I realized this was all part of the store’s plan.  When people started stealing their train cars, they didn’t take the tracks away.  They didn’t fit the trains with those shoplifting sensors they put in the books.  They just used it as a way to sell more train cars.

With a trainless train track, they’d set my kid up to fail.  They’d turned their customers against each other.  They’d made their children’s section into Thunderdome.

Thus, I penciled in a new #1 and #2 on my enemies list:

1.  Barnes

2.  Noble

We have some trains at home, but I won’t be packing them up to take to those two anytime soon.  And the next storytime we go to will be at the library.

In case you haven’t guessed, page 3 in my social playbook says, “Blog about it.”