Friday, December 31, 2010

Tantrums and other Terrorist Tactics

My mother thought she’d found a lost child the other day. There was a little girl, standing in the middle of a crowded shopping centre, bawling her head off. Mum was sitting on a couch nearby, and asked her if she was lost? Did she know where here Mummy was?

“Right here” was the grim reply a woman nearby, who had been seemingly ignoring her.

“She’s not lost, she just ‘having a moment’”, explained the Mum.

Ahh, tantrums – don’t you just love ‘em?

Erm, no actually. Detest them.

Then yesterday I was watching The View and heard Sherri talking about her son having a meltdown because she wouldn’t buy him a video game while she was in a computer store. All the other women asked her how did she cope, and she simply said, “I just let him have it”. For a heart-plunging second I thought she meant she let him have the game, but she meant she just let him have his tantrum, paid for what she had to get, and left (well, dragged him out). Thank God, an American with some common sense.

One of the other women, Joy, asked her why didn’t she use something other than “No”, like “Not today”, or “Mummy can’t afford it” or “We’ll see” or a million other bloody tiptoeing methods of not actually being in charge of the conversation. God forbid a child should hear the word “No” directed at him. I mean, that’ll never happen in his adult life right? And imagine if it does, won’t it be a lovely surprise for him?! I’m sure he’ll know exactly how to cope with being told no by his boss, his bank manager, his wife, given all the coping skills he learned in childhood, watching those Baby Einstein videos (whenever he demanded to, of course).

I loved Whoopi Goldberg’s reaction to Joy explaining she was just thinking of way to “avoid the tantrum”. “There is no ‘avoiding the tantrum’, if they’re gonna have one, they’re gonna have one – no matter how you phrase it, how you say it - even if you give them the damn toy! They might be tired, hungry or sometimes they’re just in a funky mood. Some days I’m like that, you can’t take me anywhere!”. Amen.

To be honest, tantrums were the one part of parenting that really had me scared when I was pregnant. I’m not good at dealing with overly emotional people at the best of times. I tend to explore my emotions in writing; in real life I don’t do touchy-feely at all. My husband is one of those rare and incredible men who talks openly and often about his feelings, and it makes me so squirmy and uncomfortable when he starts talking about how he’s feeling that I just have to jump him rather than listen to him talk. How would I cope with some little person having a meltdown and being all unreasonably and flamboyantly emotional?

And boy howdy, does Gorgeous Girl know how to chuck a nuclear-grade tantrum. Not so much these days; being 3 and a half, she’s all about the backchat and arguing and “well, what about...”. Sometime I’m really impressed at her logic and problem solving abilities when she’s trying to get what she wants, but most of the time I’m resisting the urge to duct-tape her mouth shut.

Most of the time though, she only really persists when she can sense that I’m wavering about whether or not to say no, I’m doubting myself, or second-guessing whether it’s really a big deal. The minute I show I’m serious and take charge by telling her, “No. Now I’ve said no, and I mean it. When have I ever said no and changed my mind?” she usually gives it up. And there is the secret, one thing I am inordinately smug about is the fact I have never, ever said no to GG and then gone back on it, no matter how big a tantrum she threw, because I knew the minute I did all I was teaching her that no doesn’t mean no, it just means you have to throw a bigger wobbly til you get what you want. I have trust capital now.

It means I have had to drag a screaming child out of many a shopping centre, leave a nearly-finished grocery shop and manhandle a squirming, screeching and kicking alien life force out of the store. It means I have had to stand at a door behind which I had confiscated something fun to play with (like a power saw) and physically hold it shut while a nearly 2yr old GG hung from the handle screaming with more decibels than a jet engine. (I can’t even remember what I put behind that door, but God I remember that tantrum! Curse door handles that don’t lock and freakishly tall toddlers that could reach them!!)

Do you know what though? GG learned pretty quickly that tantrums don’t get you anything except a time out. She’s not bratty, or demanding. She’s learnt that the best way to get a treat is to behave nicely when we’re out, and then at the end of the trip ever so sweetly remind me how good she’s been and do you think she could maybe get a lollipop? I had fallen into the trap of doing this pretty consistently, so she then expected a treat every time we went out. Nowadays, it’s more of a haphazard thing, sometimes she does, sometimes she doesn’t. She threw a couple of wobblies when I changed that up, but nothing dramatic.

So why are so many parents afraid of their children? Why do they jump through hoops and turn themselves inside out, lest their darling progeny chuck a fit and act all unseemly? I think part of it is this whole indulgent parenting movement, you know, where parents seem to be an insipid servant, catering to their indulged child’s every whim, rather than actually raising that child and teaching them important life lessons, like they can’t have everything they want. Think Veruca in Willy Wonka.

I get how hard it is to see your child upset. We’re their parents, we want to make them happy. We also want to avoid the Judgy McJudge-Judge looks you get from random strangers when your little one chucks a tantrum. And of course there are ways to help avoid your kids chucking wobblies when you’re out and about – avoid going out when they’re going to be or already are tired, or hungry, or whatever. Sometimes, though, life does not fit neatly around nap time and you’ve simply got shit you have to do. Even then there are things you can try – bring a favourite toy along, let them ride in a stroller or trolley rather than walk, or give them something that isn’t such a big deal, let them have a ride on those carousel things in the shops, rather than let them have a chocolate or soft drink.

Of course, Whoopi is right though, some days there is no avoiding the tantrum. You can have done every thing “right” and still end up with a melted toddler puddle screaming at your feet or chucking cans off the grocery shelf. This is a terrorist tactic, to see how quickly you’ll fold, and I don’t negotiate with terrorists. I’ve seen parents croon and try to console their children mid-tantrum, I’ve seen them laugh it off and try to jolly them out of it, and I’ve even seen them give in and let them have the thing they wanted, or something else, or an ever better toy. I’ve also seen that none of those things work. The only thing that works is to keep your energy low and calm (if somewhat threatening in my case – hey, that’s just how I roll when I’m tense) and ignore it. The best thing to do is leave immediately, but I get that sometimes you just have to get bills paid, food to eat, etc. I’ve done it. Ride it out. The only big social rule I really believe in is that if your child is throwing a tantrum in a cafe, restaurant or movie... LEAVE!!!! Don’t look round smiling apologetically, don’t laugh it off, just get the hell out, we’re trying to relax and eat here! Come back later when little Timmy is acting human again, okay?

How did I cope with all these lavish displays of emotion? Pretty good, I think. As hard as it is to see your little one upset and crying, part of you realises you are doing it for their own good, in a big-picture kind of sense, and I just kind of grit my teeth and work hard to act like I’m calm, unmoveable, a boulder in a stream, with a river of emotion just washing around me. I am unchanged, although maybe a little worn down at the end.