Little Isabella doesn’t want to leave the park. Best I can tell, her Mom has reached the fourth two-minute warning for departure and every time The Little Princess hears the phrase “Come on honey, time to put on your shoes.” she goes apoplectic and runs the other direction. Mom has yet to get off the park bench; I guess she’s counting on parental telepathy at this point. After a brief interval, she tries a half-hearted “Honey…” from a safe distance, only to be met with more howls of protest. As if to explain the unfolding spectacle, the Mom looks at me and says, “She just loves the park.”
But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself here…let’s go back to where it all begins.
No parent likes to hear their child cry. It’s far more than annoying, it’s emotionally unsettling. Child Development studies have shown that parents have an involuntary physiological response to the sound of a crying child. Agitation, increased heart rate – hearing a little one cry elicits a physical and emotional reaction not entirely unlike a panic attack. And, not surprisingly, when a parent hears one of their kids crying, their first instinct is to figure out the quickest way to make it stop. On more than one occasion, I’ve stumbled half-asleep into Pebble’s room and scooped her out of her crib with a whispered “Daddy’s here, you’re okay.” without ever knowing why she was crying in the first place. Sometimes she’s had a bad dream and sometimes she’s just bored and wants company.
Of course, very young children, who have not yet learned anything that resembles emotional nuance, have pretty much only one level of discontent – utter and complete anguish. At a certain age, there’s no distinction between the agony of falling and cutting open your head and the agony of discovering that an episode of Yo Gabba Gabaa is over. And because the volume and passion of the protests that accompany each of these crises is equal, it’s not uncommon to see parents swoop in with equal concern and try to fix the situation with soothing, kind words and the inevitable bribes and negotiations that follow.
This is how we get trained, from the time our kids are born, to do whatever it takes to keep them happy. What begins as an instinctual urge to meet the needs of an infant slowly morphs into an exhausted capitulation to the demands of a toddler. We get tired of fighting, tired of the theatrics, tired of hearing the word “No” come out of our mouths. Add to this fatigue the shame that comes with hauling a screaming four-year-old off the swing-set in front of the entire world and keeping oneself planted firmly on that bench seems like a valid, even sensible, option.
While this might be the perfect way to stop the waterworks or avoid a confrontation, it’s also the perfect way to raise an entitled toddler who believes that all things are possible through tears. Our desire to avoid confrontation and make everything okay is, in fact, making our kids into tantrum terrorists, ready to hold the peace and quiet of our lives hostage to their every whim.
Sure, there are times when comfort and accommodation from Mommy or Daddy is the perfect remedy: a skinned knee, a bad dream, the death of Marley. Your child’s fit about not wanting to eat her broccoli, however, is not one of those times. It’s in precisely these moments that a parent has the opportunity to draw a clear and important line between what is and is not an appropriate reaction to life’s little disappointments. It’s also the perfect moment to show a child that there’s a difference between genuine distress – which will always be met with love and care – and unnecessary drama.
All of this gets back to an important rule about being a parent in the first place. After the basics of feeding, clothing and protecting your child from peril, your primary role is not Comforter-In-Chief, it’s teacher. Everything we do (and fail to do) is a lesson to our kids about how the world works and what is expected of them in that world. To be sure, there are times when the appropriate lesson is “Don’t worry, I’m here for you, everything is going to be okay.” but somewhat more often the lesson needs to be “Hysteria is not an acceptable method of expressing your desires and will never get you what you want.”
In our hearts, we already know that these lessons are not interchangeable. Think about how horrified any of us would be to hear a parent tell a bleeding three-year-old to “suck it up and walk it off.” We should be equally horrified when a meltdown over nap-time or the equal distribution of popcorn is met with cooing whispers along the lines of “Mommy loves you, if you stop crying we’ll make cookies after your nap!” The only possible lesson a child can learn from such an encounter is that a tantrum is, indeed, an appropriate reaction to napping, eating veggies, sharing toys and anything else he’s not thrilled about doing. Even better (from the kid’s perspective), they’ve learned that if they bring enough fit and fury to bear on such outrages, their efforts will be rewarded with an afternoon of homemade baked goods.
I recognize that, sometimes, a worn out parent simply wants to bargain their way to a little serenity. As strongly as I feel about this subject, I sometimes find myself backtracking on hard and fast rules, in an effort to buy ten minutes of quiet to send an email or return a phone call. At the end of a long day, with dishes in the sink and laundry to fold, the path of least resistance can be very attractive. But in my heart I know that every time I bend the rules for a moments peace, I am actually undermining my ability to enforce the rules in the future. Every time we catch ourselves thinking “I just don’t want to fight about everything.” we’re guaranteeing that there will, in fact, be another fight.
Rather than trying to avoid every meltdown, we can end this behavior all together by teaching our kids that wild outrage is not an equally appropriate response to physical injury and a lack of lemonade juice boxes. Doing so requires that we get past our desire to fix everything and, more importantly, summon the energy and resolve to let our kids be miserable when they so choose. A child left alone to perform her displeasure in an empty living room or whose theatrics are, invariably, a one way ticket to time-out, will learn soon enough that such behavior is ineffective and unacceptable.
Kids can be relentless; I am raising a five year old who could out negotiate Congressional Republicans. But each time I buy his compliance rather than demand it, I am trading a split second of “easy” for a lifetime of defiance and debates. When quiet reason fails, it’s time get our collective butts off the park bench and drag little Isabella kicking and screaming to the car. Yes, we’ll wilt a little under the disapproving stares of the parents around us. Yes, we’ll have to deal with a raving lunatic of a toddler who is trying to convince everyone in ear shot that she is being water-boarded. No, these things are not fun. This is the hard work of being a good parent and, like most hard work, it simply must get done.