My 11 month old threw his first public tantrum. We were at the park and he was toddling around loving life and exploring….and eating leaves like he’d never been fed. Leaf in each hand, he was ready to stuff another in his mouth as soon as I dug the first soggy clump out from behind his clenched teeth. No amount of attempted distraction worked, and after a half an hour of this, and several bitten Mommy Fingers, I said cheerily, “Oooookay, we’ve had enough park fun, time to go home!”. We had done this routine dozens of times, but today he kept looking frantically over his shoulder as the park got further away. When we reached the car it registered to him we were really, REALLY leaving, and he lost it. Hysterics, full body flailing, big crocodile tears, tiny hands stretching back towards the land of delicious leaves. And my immediate instinct was to make my sad little boy happy…by returning to the park. Me, who as a teacher had time and again told whiny students, “Sorry Little Chickadee, you got the wrong teacher to try begging and whining on, not going to work”. Yet here I was, my distraught red-faced baby in my arms, literally rooted to the spot as I contemplated giving him what wanted.
I took a few steps back towards the park, and truly not knowing what to do, sat both of us right down on the ground. I knew I shouldn’t give in. But he was so upset, and what he wanted was so simple. I could stop the tears and bring back his smile by walking a few more feet back to the playground. It was at that moment that I realized the next stage of my Mommy Training had begun.
The training of honing my immediate responses to counteract the next 18 years of pleading, begging, whining and tantrums over one more cookie, a new phone, five more minutes in the pool. We talk about establishing good behaviors and habits in our kids from a young age, but often don’t realize that before we can do this, we need to condition ourselves. You may be convinced that you’ll stand firm and your adoring child will see how wise you are and happily listen to you (my thoughts exactly, about two minutes prior to the meltdown, as I watched another mom unsuccessfully trying to reason with her shrieking child, certain that my son would NEVER act like that). When that moment actually arises though, and your toddler is suddenly screaming in the store for candy or your sweet nine year old says they hate you because you won’t buy them the new toy that every single one of their friends has and they are the only one without it and you’re the worst mom ever…impulse can overtake reason. This is why we as parents need to turn those heat-of-the-moment compulsions into calm, practiced responses.
Now you might ask yourself – is letting your baby stay at the park a little longer really that big of a deal? He isn’t even a year old and the kid just wants to play, give him a break! But I’ve realized, as with many things in parenting, that while it might not engrain in him at that very moment that “tantrums = I get what I want”, it will begin to engrain in ME that my child being unhappy means that I need to do whatever I can to fix it (and down the road he will most definitely figure out that all it takes to get what he wants is a certain amount of poor behavior). We want our kids to be happy, who would knowingly do something to make them sad or agitated? Every year I’d have students tell me happily, “My mommy doesn’t ever want me to be sad, she never tells me ‘no’!”
But that’s not how life works. There are going to be hundreds, thousands of times at home and school and out in the world that my boy is not going to get his way. Not everyone is going to respond to a tantrum by handing him what he wants. In fact, most people won’t. Every family has their own dynamics and accepted rules for requesting things, but whatever that is, whatever you envision for your family down the road – start now.
And I started right then, sitting on the ground. I cuddled my little boy close and talked softly to him. “The park is very fun isn’t it? We did a lot of things today. We went down the slide and on the swings and played in the sand. But it’s time to go now. The great thing is that we can come back to the park another day and have fun again.” And his tears stopped, he smiled at me, and gave me a big hug. Ha, not even close. He still screamed and kicked and cried the whole way home. The next several times we left the park went pretty much the same. Each time I’m getting better though, and instead of fits that last the entire car ride home, they are now finished by the time we reach the edge of the playground. I’m staying calm and sticking to my guns, and there will come a day when my boy knows exactly what I’m telling him. Whether he respects it immediately, or not for a few years, I will be content in knowing that down the road I’m going to be able to make decisions for my son and my family based on composed responses that I’ve put a lot of thought and practice into. And hopefully, one day, all my previous self-training will pay off.
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