Scene: Target on a Saturday afternoon. I've been doing my weekend shopping (diapers, toothpaste, razors, body wash, new socks) while my toddler son has been mostly well behaved - happily pushing the cart or playing with the brand new Hot Wheels car I bought him at the beginning of the trip. But now we're about to get in line, so I scoop him up and plunk him in the cart.
Mistake. The time bomb begins ticking. First, he whines. Then he begins fake-crying. When that doesn't work, he starts screeching.
It’s a scenario that every parent and most shoppers are familiar with. And onlookers are full of complaints about the parents who don’t react in a way that is up to their standards - who “don’t do anything about it.”
Hi. I am that parent.
I will not snatch my child up and leave my cart behind. I will not yell at my son. I will not demand that he ignore his toddler emotions and "Quiet down, right now!"
Instead, I will take him over to a somewhat quiet aisle, let him throw his fit for an agonizing period of time - usually something like three minutes - while other shoppers walk by and glare at me with piercing disapproval.
Throw me all the nasty looks you want. I will not discipline my son in a way that I know is not effective just so that I can appease your desire to see him punished for being annoying. Yelling at him, or dragging him from the store, will just escalate the situation and cause more distress for my child, other shoppers, and myself.
I know that tantrums are annoying to listen to. Believe me, I live with a toddler, I bear witness to anywhere from three to roughly five hundred tantrums a day. It doesn’t get easier. The screaming doesn’t become any more pleasant. It’s brutal.
It’s also completely normal toddler behavior.
Hell, it’s normal adult behavior. Remember the last time you were frustrated? Maybe your boss dropped a project in your lap and demanded an unreasonable deadline, then yelled at you when it wasn’t done. Or maybe you were trying to program your new DVR and just couldn’t figure out how the stupid thing worked.
Being frustrated sucks! Fortunately, as a grown-up, you have the proper outlets for your anger. Maybe you bite your tongue at the time, but later complain to a spouse. Maybe you take some deep breaths until you calm down. Maybe you go for a walk to get away from the frustrating thing, and then come back to it with a clear head.
Kids do not have those options. They don’t know how to handle their frustration. They can’t think logically. They don’t understand that social norms dictate that they don’t scream because Daddy turned the TV off and they weren’t done watching it.
In the Slate article “Why does my kid freak out?” Melinda Wenner Moyer does a great job of explaining a toddler’s mindset. Around the time that tantrums start, toddlers have gained more mobility - and therefore greater access to things they probably shouldn’t have - but their brain development hasn’t caught up. So now, they’re grabbing at more things, and putting themselves in more dangerous situations, prompting Mama and Daddy to start redirecting them almost constantly.
But to the child, all they know is that Mama and Daddy are constantly telling them they can’t do what they want or have the things they’re interested in. They don’t understand why. And if a freak-out over not being able to play with Mama’s Chapstick seems overblown, consider how Alicia Lieberman, a professor of Infant Mental Health at the University of California-San Francisco and author of The Emotional Life of the Toddler, described their perception of these barriers to Slate: “Since it’s the parent, whom they rely on for everything, who is taking it away, it’s perceived as a withdrawal of love, essentially.” She goes on to say it’s similar to how an adult would feel if their spouse cheated on them.
Harvey Karp, the pediatrician most well-known as the author of the life-changing The Happiest Baby on the Block, also reminds parents that toddlers’ brains are so underdeveloped, their emotions skip the “think before you speak” annoyed-but-still-in-control phase and go right to the so-upset-I-can’t-think phase.
For toddlers, having a temper tantrum is like having a panic attack. Their emotions boil over, their brain short-circuits, and they explode. Remember the last time you lashed out in anger? It wasn’t your proudest moment, sure, but it happens.
I don’t get angry with my son when he has a tantrum. He isn’t misbehaving, he isn’t trying to piss me off, and he isn’t enjoying himself any more than I am. I’m sympathetic to him, because I have anxiety attacks as well. I wouldn’t appreciate someone yelling at me to shut up, or tell me that I’m embarrassing them, when I’m already feeling like my life is crumbling. It would be cruel for someone to treat me harshly in that state, because I don’t have control over myself.
But if all of that doesn’t sway you, how about this: those harsh discipline techniques like yelling, swatting him on the butt, dragging him outside, all will not work. Or at least, they won’t stop the tantrum. They will make it worse.
If my son is throwing a tantrum because he really wants to push the shopping cart, then the only thing that will make him happy is to push the shopping cart. Not distracting him - my stubborn little tyrant sees right through that. Not logic - he’s two years old! And not taking him out of the store and further away from the shopping cart - that will just trigger a bigger meltdown.
Instead, I let him throw his tantrum. Yes, that means he stomps and screeches for a couple minutes, then quiets to a whimper, then he throws himself into my arms and quietly lays his head on my shoulder, where he remains while I check out.
I’m not giving into the tantrum by not disciplining him - he still doesn’t get what he wants. But I’m also not ignoring him - another common suggestion that I know from experience will only make my son scream louder, and still not demonstrate empathy for him. Imagine if you had just discovered that you hadn’t gotten into the college you had always dreamed of attending, or had just gotten dumped, and when you cried to your best friend about it, she just pretended she didn’t hear you. That would sting, wouldn’t it?
I don’t want my son to learn that showing emotions are bad. Too many boys are conditioned with phrases like “big boys don’t cry” to think that showing vulnerability means weakness. Those boys grow up to be men who treat the rest of the world with a similar unsympathetic perspective. I think it’s sad.
So judge me for making your shopping experience less pleasant for a few minutes. But remember that every day, we’re going to do things that will make someone else displeased. From where I sit, that’s part of being a member of society - we have to deal with other people, who will sometimes be annoying. I don’t want to listen to that lady on the bus having an argument with her boyfriend over the phone. I don’t want to be behind someone in the checkout line that smells strongly of Axe deodorant. But my right to silence doesn’t trump their right to speak, and my right not to be subjected to an unpleasant stench doesn’t trump their right to using their preferred hygiene products.