If you see a kid having a public temper tantrum and want to either blame the parents or blame the people who hate the parents, maybe you don’t understand temper tantrums. Pete Beisner offers advice.
Lately I have noticed a lot of chatter going on about public tantrums. There seems to two schools of thoughts: “Those parents need to learn how to control their kids” and “Leave the poor parents alone. They are probably doing the best that they can.”
But those two schools of thought leave out two very important things. The first is that some people have a physical condition that makes the sound of a screaming toddler literally painful. And the second is that many people do not understand tantrums.
If you find the sound of a toddler screaming or a baby crying intensely upsetting, you may be one of millions of people who has a processing problem and is very sensitive to sound. Shrill sounds, in particular, are painful to be around.
The sound of a child screaming is supposed to be distressing. But for people who are very sound sensitive it is torture. I have known people who are tempted by the sound of a screaming child to beat their own heads against a wall just to distract themselves from the sound. What I find interesting about this kind of sound sensitivity is that it increases with age even though overall hearing declines.
If you are sound-sensitive and you find yourself becoming intensely emotional in response to a child’s relentless screaming this does not make you a bad person. Your painful response to sound is no more your fault than something like ADHD or dyslexia would be.
However, the rules for public spaces should not be designed around us. You should just expect screaming any place where children are allowed. It is like poop in diapers: Not fun, but it comes with the territory.
Rather than blaming parents or children, I recommend using adaptive technology. Multiple pairs of good quality earplugs are practically a medical necessity. I carry a couple different pairs in a pill case attached to my key ring. I use a lightweight pair if I just need to cut the sound, like when I am in church. I use a thicker set if I need to not hear a baby. But by far the best adaptive technology is a good pair of ear buds and a “sounds of nature” application on your phone. I can put on my Bose ear buds and a recording of waves on a pebbly beach, and actually enjoy reading a book during a cross-country flight filled with screaming toddlers.
Now that we have covered why a few people are distressed by other people’s tantrums, we need to talk about why it pisses off the rest of you. You assume that only bad parents who cannot control their children or rude people who don’t give a crap about people around them would allow such an infernal noise to continue.
I understand where you are coming from. I would feel the same way if I hadn’t attended some parenting classes. I insisted on them when my wife and I got engaged. I really wanted to be a good father, and I knew enough to know that I had no idea what I was doing when it came to raising kids. These classes did not make me an expert. But they gave me a working understanding that helped me be a good dad.
By far, the most important and valuable thing that I learned in those classes was what tantrums are. Once I understood them, dealing with them became much easier. Again, I am not a child-development expert. I am an engineer. And thinking about tantrums this way got me through a lot of tough years of parenting:
1) There are actually two kinds of tantrums: a shake-down and a melt-down.
2) A minority of tantrums are shake-down. It is a negotiation strategy. Unfortunately, little kids don’t have a great sense of proportion, so they tend to start every negotiation by taking hostages. “I have your schedule, your sanity and your self-worth as a parent. If you want to be on time, get done what you planned and look at me without feeling guilty, you will give me that cookie NOW!”
3) Kids don’t have a lot of power, so they enter every negotiation at a disadvantage. The one thing that they can bring to the table is “I will scream down the rafters.” A kid who is taught other ways of negotiating will be less inclined to use the nuclear option.
4) The best response to a shake-down tantrum is to call the child’s bluff. This is relatively easy to do in private, but harder to do in public because of people who try to shame parents into silencing their children.
5) When you say nasty things or glare at a parent while a child is having a shake-down tantrum, you are giving that kid more ammunition to use against the parent next time that they are in public. If you make a parent more uncomfortable letting a child scream, you are actually increasing the power a tantrum has thereby increasing the likelihood it will be employed. On behalf of those of us who do not enjoy shopping to the accompanying strains of “Screams of Rage in B Flat” I beg you, please do not harass the parents.
6) The majority of tantrums, even many that look like a shake-down, are actually a melt-down. Do not presume to know what is going on with another person’s child.
7) Tantrums are not a bug. They aren’t even an ordinary feature. They are a safety feature and you should never, ever disable a safety feature.
8) Tantrums are designed to be annoying or downright distressing. They are like smoke detectors. They are supposed to make you emotionally agitated. Safety features don’t work if they don’t strongly encourage people to change behavior.
9) Tantrums are designed to alert parents and other caregivers that a child has reached a melt-down state. Usually, these melt-downs occur when the ability to process stimulus is exceeded by incoming stimuli. It is a deceptively simple formula because often we forget how much stimulus even normal environmental situations contain for young children.
10) Young brains are prone to melt-downs because they are very busy trying to figure out how the world works. To learn about the world, they are wired to be very sensitive to the stimulus, but they do not have a corresponding increased capacity to process and deal with the stimulus.
To put it another way, they are running their little engines at maximum RPM all the time, but they have a very persnickety water pump.
11) Young children lack fundamental information and concepts necessary for processing all of the incoming data. To put it another way, being a toddler is like being dropped into a different foreign country every day. Everyone is speaking in a language that you don’t know, and they make you go places and do things that you don’t understand and that you cannot anticipate. You have no idea which colors, objects, and unfamiliar sounds are unimportant and which ones are required to keep you alive. Every day, you are doing very fast pattern-matching, trying to figure out what everything means. And some days, there is just so much stimulus to pattern-match that the wheels just come off your wagon.
12) Even shake-down tantrums are often rooted in this fundamental lack of understanding about how they world works. For example: a toddler may recognize a box in a store and remember that when their dad fills their bowl with stuff from that box, they really like it. So they may demand that the parent buy that particular box of cereal, and then launch into a full-scale tantrum when the parent says no. But they may not understand one or more of the following things:
- That stores restock their shelves regularly. They may think that all of the Sugar Smacks in all of the world sit on that shelf and that if you do not buy it, they will never again get to taste Sugar Smacks.
- They may not understand that when you say “No” today, this does not indicate a sweeping policy change for all future cereal acquisition.
- Their concept of time is Now and a Long, Long, Long time from now. So saying “We will get that the next time” is like your partner saying, “Not tonight dear, but we will definitely have sex eight years, six months and twenty-two days from now.
Let me bottom line this for those of you who do not have an issue with sound-sensitivity but hate to hear children screaming:
The world does not revolve around you. Other people have needs too. And young children, for a variety of reasons, need to throw tantrums. And parents of young children need to allow those tantrums to happen and not whisk them away every time that they start to scream.
You are an adult. You likely have more time than a parent does, so if you cannot stand to be in a store where a kid is screaming, then leave, and come back another time. And if all else fails, earplugs are cheap. Use them.
If you are just being judgmental: I think we all should listen to what you have to say about parenting and do exactly as you recommend – right after you turn the water into wine. Actually, make it a nice hard cider. I am really into those right now.
Photo: niklashellerstedt / flickr