Monday, 22 July 2013

why do we all stare when a toddler has a tantrum?

I introduced some thoughts about parenting and identity a few weeks back, and it's been buzzing around in my head since then.  By extending the thinking about pregnancy and expectations to other situations a little further down the road, there's something else I'd love to hear your thoughts on, and memories of : tantrums.

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Toddler tantrums (or not~so~toddler ones) are one easily recognisable challenge of early parenthood ~ most of us have, at one time or another (or both!) been in that situation of one (or more) of our precious little bundles of love having a meltdown in public ~ screaming, shouting, kicking, tears running down their face and into their mouths, cheeks rosy with heat as they open their mouth wide to suck in a breath to replenish  the oxygen in their system so that they can emit another scream... and it feels like every single person in sight is stood still, frozen into place by horror, watching that child and, more significantly, staring at us, waiting to see what we're going to do in response.  But it doesn't end there ~ everyone within earshot is listening in too, with lots of knowing glances and seruptitious nudges with elbows when they happen to pass by you later, your child entirely exhausted by their emotional outburst, dozing off from sheer exhaustion in the baby seat in the trolley, their chubby cheeks marked by trails of tears, and often a snot bubble or two for some reason.

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Most of us have been there.  So why do so many of us join in with the staring and (hopefully but probably not really very) discreet pointing and nudging and whispering?

I think part of it is relief ~ relief that (this time at least!) it isn't our child screaming and shouting because we've picked a tin of spaghetti loops instead of Scooby~snack shaped pasta ~ how dare we!  Like when you see someone slip over on an icy street ~ you might smile, or stiffle a giggle or smirk ~ not because it's funny that somebody fell down, just that sensation of relief, of 'thank goodness it wasn't me'.  Relief that we are not the ones being looked at, not the ones being judged, not the ones who have to deal with that complex multifaceted balancing act.  You know, that great long list of elements you have to consider ~ I know he's tired but I need to get the shopping but he looks really hot but I've told him no but maybe he doesn't understand but if I give in does that undermine my authority but this is going to take forever but ...  

I know that while I've been thinking 'oh my god how embarrassing everyone is staring and he just won't stop crying/screaming/kicking me/delete as appropriate' other parents have been walking past thinking 'I remember when Johnnie~boy did that in Sainsburys that time ~ I was so embarrassed I wanted the earth to open up and swallow him or me or both of us!'. And this is the crux of it ~ the overwhelming majority of parents actually have been there at some point, and when we know the staring makes it all so much more difficult, why do so many of us do it?

Perhaps sometimes it can be a superiority thing : 'oh look at that child, what a state he's got himself into ... I'm sure my children never behaved like that ...'. If this is you, by the way, you're most likely wrong.  It's easy to develop a selective memory over experiences like this, and edit the first few years of your child's life to include lots of birthday cakes and playing with the dog and cuddles and splashing in the bath, and not~a~lot of  throwing dinner on the floor or drawing on the walls or crying in the supermarket.  And something else to remember is that it is only by pushing these boundaries and experiencing the potential consequences that children learn to regulate their  own behaviour ~ I worked in child protection for several years and a child who behaved impeccably at all times was a child that you worried about long after the work day had finished.

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I'll always remember the time Petal, aged about two, was having a full~on screaming session in the supermarket and I was desperately trying to do what you're meant to do ~ you know, no eye contact, no negotiating, focus on what you're doing and ignore the hot sweaty bundle of screaming child in the seat.

It was one of those horrible days when everything turns out wrong and you wished there was a button somewhere you could press to end the game without saving it, so you could just start over.

I was on the brink of tears, listening to this little girl screaming 'but I want it now mummy' while I had my back to the trolley pretending to be totally engrossed in careful consideration of the relative merits of thin cut versus thick cut marmalade.  An elderly lady walked past, shot a cold verging on frozen glance at Petal, leaned towards me as she reached for a jar of peel~free marmalade (who knew there were so many choices!) and said 'you're doing just fine my dear, it's the best way to help her understand the world doesn't always revolve around her ~ you'll look back on this in a couple of years and be glad you made the best choice'.  She stood back, glanced again at Petal with one eyebrow slightly raised, and glided off.  I've never seen her since ~ it's as though Mary Poppins and Nanny McPhee jumped into a blender together then were shaped into a tall (and admittedly rather wide) elderly lady with white hair styled into an extremely tidy bun, an independently operated eyebrow capable of fully articulating it's disappointment, and a low voice full of encouragement and even a little admiration.  Every time after that that one of my offspring decided this was the time to scream at the top of their lungs for no good reason, I remembered that lady, and she was right ~ my kids know that I love them but also know that I expect them to behave appropriately, both in public and at home.  This doesn't necessarily mean that they do of course, but I can honestly say that the period of screaming toddler tantrums did not last very long at all!  But maybe I've subconsciously edited out the bad times ~ entirely possible ~ but what I do know is that they're definitely objectively well behaved now ~ aged nine, ten and eleven ~ does that help?

Maybe the next time you can hear the child before you see them, you might think about whether you could offer some sort of solidarity with the embarrassed parent rather than becoming part of the audience for the child to play to.  Even making eye contact with that parent can break that isolation, that spiral into total humiliation ~ the simple act of offering a wry smile might, for that parent, be just what they need at that moment to help them stick to their guns.  Just give it a try, and let me know how it goes.  Or comment below, sharing your most excruciating tantrum memory!

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