We are seeing this scene in my household with great regularity and frequency. Examples of coveted “somethings” are cell phones, TV remotes, turning on water faucets, being pushed at high speed through the house on a small car, small refrigerator magnets, locked doors. Occasionally I am able to distract her from her despair by tickling her or pulling up her shirt and giving her raspberries in her armpits. But she can be remarkably persistent in her tantrums. Sometimes all I know to do is to stand back and admire her performance.
It is a common feature of parenting that a child’s tantrums are to be discouraged. I know that in my household growing up, I could expect my tantrums to be met by parents’ rendition of the Electric Company song “Whimper and Whine” in an overly exaggerated whiny voice. (You know the one: “We are the kids known as Whimper and Whine, Whimper and Whine…”) This never made me want to stop whining, however; it only made me angrier. Of course, I was seventeen years old at the time.
My little girl is seventeen months old, so I know better than to try to tease or shame her out of her tantrums. She doesn’t understand that temper tantrums are not looked upon favorably in adult society. All she understands is that something she wants is being kept or taken from her, and it makes her angry and frustrated. The subsequent pouting is a way of expressing this. I know it’s easy for me to say this now, and as my child gets older and more experienced in the skills of pouting I may be forced to eat these words, but: I’m not sure it’s helpful to scold or punish children for pouting or throwing a tantrum.
Let me also be clear: I’m not suggesting parents encourage children to pout. It is a pretty unattractive quality in children, and particularly in adults, and at some point I hope my child learns new and different of coping with disappointment. But at what age should this take place? Or, perhaps a different way of thinking about this problem is to ask, What is the function of pouting? Does a temper tantrum serve a purpose?
If, as I’ve said above, the tantrum is a way of expressing frustration and anger, it seems counterproductive to punish the tantrum. I suppose this might be different if the tantrum itself exhibits destructive behavior, but pouting and whining and crying in and of themselves don’t really hurt anyone or anything besides a parent’s patience. Given all my education and experience as a counselor and chaplain, my tactic with patients is to empathize and encourage the expression of authentic emotions. When someone is grieving, this could like nearly anything, and its expression is encouraged without judgment. Why would this be different for a frustrated child?
I’ve heard parents threaten their children in a restaurant or in church: “If you don’t stop, I’m taking you out of here.” Now, I appreciate parents removing their disruptive children from restaurants and church services where I’m trying to enjoy some quiet. But when the removal is presented as a punishment that the child should be ashamed about, instead of simply respect to those of us not actively involved in parenting this child, this doesn’t seem helpful. Whatever the child is upset about – and, as children, whatever is upsetting is probably pretty insignificant when compared to typical adult concerns – it seems best to simply hear the child and empathize. “I know you want to stay in the bath, and I understand why you’re upset that we’re getting out now.” “Yes, honey, I know it is frustrating that I won’t let you play with knives.” “I know you’re sad that I won’t let you swallow that piece of dirt you found in the trash can.” It would seem that acknowledging and normalizing a child’s frustrations is more appropriate than threatening punishment or shaming the behavior as childish.
Because it is childish – children do usually act childish. Now, if we’re dealing with a teenager or an adult, childish behavior seems much less appropriate. But again, I have to wonder, is shame the best approach? When an adult whines, what does he really want? I wager it’s to have someone listen and empathize. Are there better ways to get that than whining? Most definitely. But I’ll wager that a lot of whiny adult are just whiny kids who were never listened to.
My little girl is still a little young to really appreciate being empathized with. In her experience, empathy would mean getting her way. When it comes to playing with knives or eating dirt, she’s just not going to get her way. This frustrates her. I get that; I get frustrated, too. As she gets older, she’ll no doubt get more skilled at pouting and throwing tantrums. Fits will be pitched, patience will be strained. I’m really not trying to be some kind of utopian fairytale parent about this; I know it will be difficult. But I trust that what children want is what all human beings want: to be listened to. We learn early that we don’t always (or usually) get our way and that sucks. It’s okay to be upset about this. And as we grow, we can learn ways to cope with this situation.
So, pout away my friends, pout away. Every now and then, we all need to throw ourselves on the floor and kick and scream. And if we can do this with people who care enough about us to just let us have our mad, then we will eventually pick ourselves up off the ground and move on to the next thing. And if you don’t, I will probably pull your shirt over your head and blow raspberries on your armpits.