Not Holding My Breath

I read an amusing, thought-provoking, and well-written non-fiction book. The author casually scattered throughout the chapters references to his young son’s tantrums and “freak outs.” He didn’t refer to the behavior as problematic, but rather seemed to take it in stride — part and parcel of having a child. This is how kids are and what they do and there’s not much to be done about it so why bother? He didn’t say that, mind you, but it was implied.

Wanting first to compliment him on his book, which I really enjoyed, and second to see if perhaps he was less pleased with the kid’s behavior than he let on, I looked for him on Facebook. Long story short, I ended up emailing his wife. We exchanged pleasantries and I casually asked whether the tantrums had abated and if not, did she want them to, because I might be able to help. She didn’t jump enthusiastically at the offer, but she didn’t object, either. So, I forged ahead. She mentioned how she and the husband were each currently addressing the tantrum situation (two different approaches). Here, with unrelated chit-chat removed (hence the abrupt start) and all identifying information changed, is what I wrote.

But seriously, life is so much more pleasant for mom and dad if the kids are predictably well-behaved. You can go anywhere and do anything with them, without worrying about how you’ll handle things if someone freaks out, because you know that no one will freak out.

First, by “tantrum” I mean a fit pitched in response to things not going your way. It can involve crying, whining, screaming, flailing, dropping to the ground, bashing head against pavement, breath holding, etc. All ridiculous and unacceptable, and entirely meant to get mom and dad’s blood boiling. It’s all a big drama scene. And it’s got way more to do with you than with them. It’s a show, and you’re buying the ticket. Or you’re not, which is our goal here.

Background info: When my girls were tiny we had no pets beyond a goldfish in a bowl (now deceased). Their only frame of reference for domestic animals was Norton, the poor dog who lived in our neighbor’s backyard for many years. He was lonely, miserable, and (in my opinion) neglected. Despite a slew of kids in his family, he spent 99% of his time alone, tied up in the yard. Had my girls known me before marriage, they’d know that any pet of mine not only lives in the house as a member of the family, it sleeps in the bed! My german shepherd had her own pillow.

But they didn’t know that. So…

Here’s what happened the first time my oldest daughter (now 7) attempted to throw a tantrum. We were in our home office. She was about 2-1/2. I’d told her not to open the file cabinet because it could tip over and crush her. She started opening the drawer. I told her to stop. She wouldn’t. I closed it. She started pitching a fit. Not just regular crying, but a real fit. She was angry that she was not getting her way.

Now here is where the modern parenting books tell you to get down to their level and say, “I see you’re angry. I validate your anger. Blabbity blah blah.” And that is why it is almost impossible to go out in public without some obnoxious brat ruining the experience. Too much emphasis on self-esteem, too little on respect for others. So I took my mom’s approach:

I said, “Change your behavior, right now.” She kept at it. She began to drop to the floor and start thrashing. I said, “Oh no. Absolutely not. No child of mine behaves like this. You are acting like an animal. And animals live outside.”

I scooped her up, carried her downstairs, opened the back door, set her outside on the doormat and said, “If you behave like an animal, you will live outside with the animals, like Norton the dog.” I went inside and I slammed the door.

Of course it was perfectly safe. I could see her through the edge of the curtain, though she couldn’t see me. I could hear her. And she was right outside our back door. But from her perspective she was completely alone, and outside, and I was gone.

She stopped crying almost immediately. She said, “Mommy?” I waited a few moments and said, “Yes?” She said (chluppering, if you know the term), “I’m.. going… to… change… my…. behavior.” Of course I was just melting, it was so adorable and heartbreaking. But I remained firm. “Are you going to behave like a person, and not like an animal, from now on?” She said, “Y… esh.” I said, “Then you can come live inside. But if you act like an animal, you will live outside with Norton the dog.” Never happened again. From that point on, if ugly behavior threatened, all I had to say was, “Do you want to live outside with Norton the dog?” Easy cheesy.

Flash forward 2 years to her little sister’s first tantrum attempt. This kid had been hearing about living outside with the animals from day one, but she was a very different sort of kid. More defiant, less eager to please. Where the oldest was a puppy, this one was a cat (and now there’s the youngest, who’s a tasmanian devil). Anyway, when I posed the question about living outside to this one, she answered, “Yes!” Although it looked at first like the tactic wouldn’t work with her, it did. Turned out she didn’t much like being alone outside on the doormat (and for her it was also cold and dark at the time). Never happened again.

I’ve also only ever had to leave a place once, because the first time I threatened it, I followed through. The oldest was in the sandbox at a park (at least 20 minutes from our home) with some other kids. She threw sand (not normal for her, so I was surprised). I said, “Do not throw sand, you can hurt someone’s eyes.” She did it again, and I said, “Do that again and we’re leaving.” She did, and we did. No idiotic counting, no “last chance.” Just picked her up and we were gone. Without another word. Of course she screamed as we left. But by the time we got to the car and she saw that I meant what I said, she’d calmed down. Never had to leave a place again. Kids are more upset by empty threats than by fairly meted punishment. It’s a fact. They don’t like it at the moment, but they get over it very quickly, and it works.

Yeah, it’s a pain in the ass to actually leave the playground and go home (or the supermarket with the cart full, or the restaurant with friends sitting with you, or whatever). But you only have to do it once. I promise. And the friends will so appreciate that the next time, when a simple “Knock it off now or we leave” works immediately and allows you to actually have a calm, peaceful meal with all your kids in attendance.

All I have to say when behavior starts to deteriorate, is “If you don’t stop immediately, we will leave. And you know I mean it.” And they do. So I rarely have to say it. They are really very, very good girls.

Don’t let your love for your kids get in the way of good discipline. It does them, you, your friends, and the world at large no favors. I’m really a pretty laid-back mom. I only demand two things: complete and total obedience, and good manners. My kids can do pretty much whatever they want, so long as it doesn’t annoy or hurt anyone. I am very big on manners, not so much on educational toys. As I said, I’m the anti-modern parent. Just the term “playdate” makes me a little nauseated.

Tantrums are manipulative behavior. Cunning and conniving and evil. They have nothing to do with whether your kid is hungry, or tired, or anything else. It has to do with pissing you off and showing you who’s boss. He needs to learn the hard truth — you can’t always get what you want when you want it, and sometimes not at all. And that doesn’t mean you don’t love him. It’s just the way it is.

If you sit and watch him — that’s not “ignoring it” — it’s providing a nice, quiet audience. It reinforces the behavior. Any action that has you (or your husband or your nanny or whoever should be in charge) and the tantrum-throwing kid in the same space reinforces the behavior.

Your husband’s “distraction method” may be even worse. “Oh honey, that behavior is so truly awful, how about a treat to reward you for it? — like this shiny toy? or how about this shiny toy? or this fun TV show? or this yummy cookie?”

Without an audience there will be no tantrum. Without a reward there will be no tantrum. If you can’t put him outside for safety reasons, then put him in his room and lock the door. Don’t let him know you’re on the other side of the door, if you choose to stay and listen. Let him think he’s performing for no one but himself. He’ll get bored soon enough. And the tantrums will stop because they will no longer produce the desired effect.

But God help you if you wait for the tantrum to end and then give the kid what he wanted in the first place. He must learn that bad behavior yields bad results, period. It doesn’t just delay good results. Whatever he wanted to begin with, it’s gone. Done. Whatever it was, he cannot have it. No way. Tantrums cannot be a really good fight which he eventually wins.

Please don’t think I’m finding fault. I mean, I am, of course, but it’s not because you’re a bad parent, or stupid, or anything else. I mean, lots of kids do this stuff and lots of parents allow it. The reason is obvious… they love and don’t want to hurt their kids. Of course sometimes it’s just plain laziness. The effort involved in preventing that first tantrum is minimal, but real. Now that you’ve got a pattern, it will be harder to undo… but not impossible. I promise!

I think the big problem is that we confuse love with obsequiousness. Kids don’t want us to give them everything they want, they want us to give them consistency, order, a steady and reliable framework that is fair, not full of explanations and bargaining and manipulation. They want to know that we will do what we say. Every time.

I am really hoping you will let me know what you and yours think of this advice, whether you elect to give it a shot, and what happens. If you won’t do it, ship the little brats to me and my husband and we’ll straighten ‘em right out for ya. In case you’re worried, no, we don’t hit our kids. They are about as close to spoiled as you can get and still have excellent manners…

A week later, in early January, I received a very brief thank you and promise to keep me posted. So far, no word. I am not holding my breath. But I bet the kid is.

(originally published Feb. 15, 2010)


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