By Sheila Wray Gregoire
A few weeks ago my husband, a pediatrician, overheard a two minute "inspirational moment" telling parents how to deal with temper tantrums, after which he felt like throwing one himself. The "expert's" advice went something like this: children, the poor darlings, need to be encouraged to share their precious feelings, so you should hug a child in the midst of a tantrum (even if she persists in punching and kicking) to encourage her to tell you why she's angry.
Yet do toddlers even know why they are angry? Many feelings are new to them, so when they feel something intensely, they get scared and lash out. Besides, is our goal really to bring up children who will express all their feelings? "Well, Mommy, I really feel like biting and kicking Jimmy right now because he has nicer toys than me, so I think I will."
Of course not! When we adults are angry, we don't punch people, at least I hope we don't, we try to calm ourselves down. That's what we need to teach kids to do, too. They don't need to be encouraged to express their feelings as much as they need to be taught how to manage them appropriately. And that's something, in the end, that only they can do. If we are the ones always calming them down (by giving them candy, or distracting them), they'll never learn to do it themselves. While distraction works well for infants, by the time they're older they're capable of learning to calm themselves down, to everybody's benefit.
That sounds very straightforward, but I know it's completely useless when your kid is screaming in Wal-Mart because he wants to sit in the cart, but there's no room now that you've added the family sized toilet paper. And meanwhile every other shopper is looking at you like you're the parental equivalent of pond scum.
So what do you do? You ditch the toilet paper, stick the kid in the cart, and buy some candy to quiet your darling down so no one else will see that pond scum resemblance. And in the process, you've guaranteed yourself that every time you go shopping from now on, your child will throw more fits so that they will be chauffeured and stuffed with goodies.
I have spent many time outs in the Wal-Mart parking lot with the radio on, while a child screamed in the back seat. Every now and then, I'd say firmly, "Rebecca, we are not leaving until we finish shopping. But we aren't doing that until you stop crying, so you are wasting your own play time." And then I continued to sing along with Shania while I tried not to fume. For a brief time Rebecca, and to a lesser extent her little sister, were regulars in this time out parking lot, or the time out bedroom, or even the time out sidewalk outside the restaurant. Thankfully they soon learned that it wasn't worth their while.
Kids need limits; they don't need coddling. It's not trendy to think that these days, but it's true. Obedience was once considered a virtue in childhood. Today, "obey" is considered a four letter word, in more ways than one. We wouldn't want to try and control children and harm their creativity, would we?
Giving kids limits, though, actually helps their creativity. If we coddle kids when they misbehave, they learn they have absolute power. That much control can be scary to children. They run around like little pinball machines, trying to fly up against a wall and find a limit. Instead of exploring creatively, they focus on finding their safety net.
It's hard not to give in to a screaming child in public. But we harm our kids if we don't help them to learn self-control. And those of us who are now primarily in the role of observers can help parents teach these kinds of lessons. Instead of appearing disapproving next time we see a child screaming in public, perhaps we should help that parent out. We could smile and say, "Don't worry, every child does this. Just stand firm", to let the parents know they're not alone. Parent or not, we can all play a part in creating a Wal-Mart, and a society, which is tantrum-free. Now that's a desire worth expressing.
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