It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Tantrums: Philosophical background, or, How On Earth Did this Happen??

Tantrums. What parent of a toddler doesn’t shudder at the very thought? A fair number of you have talked about, worried over, and been exasperated, embarrassed and overwhelmed by your toddler’s tantrums. And some of you have asked me quite directly how I manage to do the things I do, with up to half a dozen of these critters, without streaming chaos and destruction in our wake.

It’s a good question. One to which I do and do not have the answer. I am quite confident that if left with your three-and-under child for three to five weeks, they would not be having tantrums with me. I’ve never cared for a child with a developmental delay, mind you, so I can’t speak to that particular challenge, nor a child with a severe behavioural disability. Mild to moderate behavioural issues, yes.

However, what I can say is that in the ten years I’ve been doing this, I have never had a child who could not reliably be taken out in public. I’ve never had a child who was throwing tantrums after the age of two and a quarter. (With me, that is. With their parents, it’s often an entirely different matter!) But for me, never. In ten years. So I know of what I speak.

(So you can hate me now, and turn the channel immediately!! Or maybe you can be intrigued and read on. You do what you need to do!)

But what exactly am I doing to achieve this? And, of even greater interest, can I teach you to do it? That’s much, much harder.

I’ve put a fair amount of thought into it, and here are some intial thoughts.

First the easy stuff:

Don’t try anything ambitious – like a trip to the mall – when your child is tired, hungry, or under the weather. Everybody knows that, though. Not that we don’t all end up having to do it once in a while, but we all know we’re begging for trouble when we do. That’s not all of it by any means, because we all know the little darlin’s can throw a lulu of a tantrum when they’re rested, fit, and fed. Maybe even more than when they’re tired, because they have more stamina! Little beggars…

I’ll start with some observations I’ve made of the parents of my daycare kids. I’ll describe some of their primary assumptions, assumptions which, in my opinion and considerable experience, make fertile ground for tantrums.

My clientele are well-educated professionals. Often these people have deferred having their children until their mid to late thirties, and early forties. They are intelligent, rational people. They have ideals and standards. They often have a philosophy of parenting that incorporates these ideals and standards. However, they generally have next to no real life experience with children, and so they make errors, generally based in mistaken assumptions about the nature and capabilities of children.

Generally, these parents’ expectations of their children are both too low and too high. Too low in social and behavioural areas, and too high in the cognitive and rational realms.

Low social/behavioural expectations cause parents to tolerate tantrums. No, parents don’t like or approve of them, but they see them as normal, an inevitable aspect of being a two-, or almost two-year-old. When their child is having tantrums at three, they become less confident of the inevitability or normalcy of the behaviour, but they’re still hoping that a little more maturity will magically eliminate it.

High cognitive/rational expectations lead parents to believe that if they are reasonable with their toddler, their toddler will be reasonable back. They spend much time explaining, negotiating, coaxing, and often feel exhausted by their child’s determined non-cooperation with their efforts, and disheartened by its limited success.

And the third mistake is entirely understandable, but counter-productive: they want their child to be happy at all times. They may even view this as a right of childhood. This causes them to be endlessly patient and compassionate with their raging toddler. While their child rants and roars, kicks and cries, they attempt to soothe and comfort, appease and console.

All right. I’m going to stop there. I haven’t made any analysis of these assumptions. I have deliberately not specified what alterative assumptions exist, nor made any suggestions as to different approaches. It would probably be helpful to take some time to consider and examine this post first.

In my experience with my clients over the years, these are the three areas that catch them up, again and again. Three basic premises that arise from careful thought, caring hearts, and principled parenting decisions. Premises that are formed in inexperience, however, and are thus in part simply wrong, or applied incorrectly or with inappropriate emphasis.

Next Saturday: An examination of the accuracy and inaccuracy of each assumption, and how to apply them better.

September 3, 2005 - Posted by | aggression, parenting, power struggle, tantrums


  1. Have you read Dan Kindlon’s Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Age of Overindulgence? The salient part of his argument is this: parents who will do anything and everything to make their darlings ‘happy’ all the time raise children who lack character–children who are unable to problem solve or empathize or feel a sense of responsibility to the community at large.

    I believe this wholeheartedly. I DO want my sons to be happy, but I am certain that they will be happier in the long run if they can find their place in the world.

    Phew. That’s all. Read the book–it is short and interesting.

    Comment by Susan | September 3, 2005 | Reply

  2. Mary…thats brilliant. And I mean that sincerely – especially with the low social expectations and too high rational ones. Seven days until another gem?! Oi!


    Comment by Heather | September 3, 2005 | Reply

  3. I LOVE THIS POST! This really hits the nail on the head.

    What’s annoying for me, as a parent, is when I’m disciplining my child — which means TEACHING my child — how to behave appropriately in a social situation instead of whining, or I’m coaching him through an unhappy emotion etc., well-meaning friends, including other mothers, will intervene and try to make him HAPPY. It’s not like I’m yelling at him or anything, they just think that things will be better if he’s happy.

    Drives me nuts.

    Also, if I hear one more parent tell me how some socially unacceptable behavior is “developmentally appropriate,” which is why they don’t address this misbehavior, I may actually scream.

    I look forward to your next installment!

    Comment by MIM | September 3, 2005 | Reply

  4. Hi Mary! I came over from Busy Mom’s blog to say thank you! I am glad someone agreed with me! The world has gone haywire when people will be dishonest just to get a free fries at a fast food place. I am glad that there are others out there that also do the right thing. 😉

    Comment by Barbara | September 3, 2005 | Reply

  5. Ahhh… very good! The tired/sick/hungry Sweetie Pie at the grocery store gets me every time. No tantrums anymore, but too much naughtiness. One of the drags of being a single mom is that sometimes you can’t wait until the kid’s in better shape or leave him with someone else- you just have to bite the bullet. I’ll be looking for part two.

    Comment by Cheryl | September 4, 2005 | Reply

  6. Wow. When I posted this, I confess to being a tad nervous. If it hit too close to home, someone could respond with defensiveness rather than the across-the-board enthusiasm you lot are giving me. Thanks, everyone!

    Susan: No, I haven’t, but it sounds a good one. I shall hunt it up when the library opens on Tuesday. “Their place in the world” – which is not on top of it. It also creates children with a sense of entitlement: kids who will get sullen, resentful, perhaps even violent if they don’t get all the goodies (social, emotional, monetary) which they have been taught are their right.

    Heather: Brilliant? Thank you! I don’t just tend to kids, I think about what I’m doing, and as I’ve been doing this for ten years now, I’ve hads a lot of time for thinking! Glad you enjoyed the distillation. This is why I strongly object to being called a “babysitter” – that’s the 15 year old who plays with your tot, then puts it to bed and watches TV.

    mim: “Coaching him through an unhappy emotion”. I like that. Not tryng to make it go away for him, but teaching him how to deal with it appropriately.

    My former sister-in-law used to comfort her children, when her husband had disciplined them, “It’s okay, daddy didn’t mean it.” (!!) Fifteen years later, they’re still married, and one of the girls, she’s twenty now, is turning out quite nicely, so daddy must have prevailed more than it seemed at the time… (The other 18 year old girl? I blame her on mummy!)

    And “developmentally appropriate” misbehaviour certainly does exist, but just because it’s “natural” doesn’t make it right or socially appropriate. Curbing one’s baser instincts is a necessity to living peacibly in society. You never want to have to reign yourself in? Go live in a cave somewhere. (And take that child with you…)

    Barbara: Hello, and welcome. Yeah, we minority groups need to support each other…

    Cheryl: I was a married single mom for ten years. Then I was an officially recognized divorced one, and truly, I noticed no difference! Now I have a partner with kids of his own, and it’s been weird, letting him in on the parenting. So I can relate entirely to being the first, last, and only person in the parental role. Can be exhausting, and a bit lonely, but also very satisfying; its advantage – and its disadvantage – is that every decision is yours, yours, yours. Some days that’s a burden; others, it’s a relief!

    Comment by Mary P. | September 4, 2005 | Reply

  7. Tantrums, always a sore subject.

    After 25 years of caring for other people’s families, I have to say that the children always are more prone to throw tantrums with their parents than in my care.

    I have rarely had children throw tantrums with me, and they usually behave impeccably – then mummy/daddy get home and they behave like demons.

    Something to do with ‘mummy and daddy must love me whatever I do, ‘cos they are my mummy and daddy’ ? (a comment one temperamental child used once!) and hey! I know I am a stopgap, a transient in their (hopefully) long and wonderful lives…..

    Mind you, I am renowned for being firm but fair – actually, *very* firm, but *very* fair 🙂


    Comment by craziequeen | September 4, 2005 | Reply

  8. I didn’t know you were a caregiver!

    Also something to do with the fact that parents are “safe”, which I suppose is exactly what that bright (and obviously skilfully manipulative) child was saying.

    However, none of my own three children threw tantrums much, either, and certainly not past the age of two and a quarter. Do you have children? How were yours for tantrums?

    Comment by Mary P. | September 4, 2005 | Reply

  9. Said ‘skilfully manipulative’ child was mine own god-daughter at the age of about 3.

    I have no children of my own, but I’m on about family number six (the first ones are all grown up [looks suddenly very old]), and out of those, the only ones who really tantrummed on me were terribly behaved spoilt older kids – needless to say, I didn’t stay with that family long!

    Not so much a caregiver now as a breech-stepper – I used to get paid for it, now I step into the breech for free to help out wherever I can.


    Comment by craziequeen | September 4, 2005 | Reply

  10. Ah, it’s always so easy to see the problems as the outsider. I can happily give advice to hundreds of paernets as teacher/coach/professional. When it comes to my own it’s harder to do.

    1: because you can not see your own behaviour so easily, and therefore repeat bad actions
    2: because you naturally want the child to be happy, so try to do that, forgetting all the good advice you give to others
    3: because you remember your own childhood & how you determined that you would never do “such a thing” to your child
    4: because parenting seems to be the one aspect of life where we all believe everyone else knows better than us, so we worry about how others percieve our actions, and may not do what we instictively feel is right, worring about what is correct.

    BTW, how do you deal with tantrums? Mstr A once (well three times actually) screamed for over 6 hours non-stop, despite our stressed, but determined ignoring of him.

    Comment by Mrs.Aginoth | September 4, 2005 | Reply

  11. {Shudder} OMG that was a nasty flashback.

    Comment by Aginoth | September 4, 2005 | Reply

  12. CQ: A “breech-stepper”! How lucky the families who have such a thing. Everyone should have one!

    Mrs A: You’re right. Giving advice and managing it yourself are two different things, which is why I’m being as kind as I can. It can be done, though: let’s not rob people entirely of hope!!

    How do I manage tantrums? Well, not as patiently as you, evidently. Before I can answer, a diagnositc question or three: Where was Mstr A in relation to you when this was occurring? Did you try anything else besides ignoring him? Does he still have tantrums nowadays? If so, how often, and how long?

    (If your answer will be lengthy, we can continue this discussion through email – my address is on my profile.)

    Aginoth: I’ll just bet it was! When did those marathons occur? Have you recovered yet?

    Comment by Mary P. | September 4, 2005 | Reply

  13. The marathon tantrums were night time ones. three seperate occasions, when I stopped the night time feed (he was a year old!), when he went into a bed & discovered he could escape whenever he wanted, and when I insisted on leaving him to go to sleep on his own, but he wanted me to stay till he was asleep (I’ve never done that, it builds in bad habits).

    All these took place in his room. we sleep next door. The 1st one, when he was young, we checked on him regularly, but the others we just listened invisibly from our room.

    Most tantrums take place at the bottom of the stairs, as he was told to go sit on the stairs when in a temper. General they stopped quickly, but some were real doozers.

    He does sort of still have them now – frustration & temper combining into shouting & collapsing on the floor. Now he gets sent to his room, where he usually calms down & re-appears 10 mins later to say sorry. Somketimes I can head them off before they start, but not always.

    Looking forward to LMB & LMD going through the same thing! LMB has had a couple, but has worked out she’s more likely to get her own way by being cute:-)

    Comment by Mrs.Aginoth | September 5, 2005 | Reply

  14. Three nights of six-hour bouts. And you didn’t cave. You certainly do have stamina! (It’s quite clear where he gets his, which is impressive, to say the least.) I am in parts awed and horrified. Phew.

    (An aside: There are people who object on principle to leaving a child to cry for any period of time at all. There’s a significant prejudice in North America (I don’t know what it’s like there) against “crying it out”. It’s an ideology, and I take all ideologies with a grain of salt. I have used this technique – among others – quite effectively in my time.)

    What I see here is a boy objects with every fibre of his being – once – to a particular stressor. I’m not getting the impression this is a child who routinely uses tantrums to manipulate his surroundings. Not that this makes a six-hour marathon any more pleasurable or acceptable.

    In fact, it sounds to me like you’re all managing in a style that suits your family. If, at just-turned-five, he can go into his room and then come out a few minutes later and apologize, he’s doing all right. Getting your act together after losing your temper, and then apologizing appropriately is something everyone – adults included! – needs to know how to do.

    We see the time-out in their room not so much as a punishment, but as an opportunity for them to get the time and space they need to sort themselves out. Sounds like Mstr A is able to do that – important life skill!

    As to heading them off, have you tried sending him to his room at the beginning of the cycle, before he goes all shout-and-floppy? “Looks like you need a quiet time. Off you go!”

    One of my partner’s daughters, in particular, responds well to this. She’s 14, so no tantrums, but my, cab she be sullen and prickly! Generally her snarky bouts are caused simply by feeling crowded. Send her to her room, where there’s a big comfy easy chair (put there with her in mind) and a book, and she emerges minutes or hours later a different child. Phew. She doesn’t have to be sent any more. She goes voluntarily, seeing it as a refuge from the busy-ness that grates her. This, too, is a life skill: knowing your tolerances, and when to retreat and refresh.

    Comment by Mary P. | September 5, 2005 | Reply

  15. We have also used the time-out-in-your-room (we call it ‘quiet time’) with great success. I like it because it is effective in more than one situation: when the boys are misbehaving, or when they are tired, or when they have just had an overwhelming day. Our five-year-old, who is easily overstimulated, will often come home from school or a playdate and announce that he is going to have some quiet time in his room. Then he will play alone and peacefully for however long he needs, until he feels social again. And it has helped him–and us–avoid the catastrophic tantrums he is prone to, even now.

    It is a good strategy for me, too, as I tend to get worn out and impatient as the day goes on, and often need a moment to collect myself when the unacceptable behavior begins, so that I can help my sons remember and articulate and enact the nice voice/nice words/peaceful child rules of our house.

    Comment by Susan | September 5, 2005 | Reply

  16. The quiet time works beautiful at heading off tantrums, when available. Sadly Mstr A tends to throw a wobbly just as I’m serving supper (He gets awful if he misses a meal), or while we are out. Still, you give me hope that he’s not that abnormal!

    Crying out is the hardest thing I’ve ever done with any of my kids, but it really was the only solution for this particular problem. having said that, I don’t believe that babies should be left to cry, or that it is suitable as a regular policy. In fact, my first arguament with my mother was over leaving the baby to cry!

    Comment by Mrs.Aginoth | September 5, 2005 | Reply

  17. Susan: I can see the germ of another post taking form, on the ways introversion and extroversion require different parenting techniques. It is my firm conviction that North American society favours extroverts, and we are prone to see introverted behaviours as problems that need to be fixed.

    Thus, “quiet time” often generates quite differing emotional responses in people: extroverted parents see it solely as a punishment; their extroverted children might view it similarly. For an introverted child, however, a “quiet time” is very often a gift.

    I believe both types of children need to learn to retreat and recover; it comes more naturally to introverts. Conversely, everyone needs to learn to manage social crowding bytimes; it just comes more naturally to extroverts!

    And now I’ve digressed into a competely different topic. I love this stuff, I must confess!

    Mrs. A: The before meal irritability is very common, of course, and nothing to worry about. If it’s uncommonly severe, though, could Mstr A be hypoglycemic? I imagine you likely give him a mid-afternoon snack, including some protein source, which helps ward off the before-dinner blood sugar crash.

    Comment by Mary P. | September 5, 2005 | Reply

  18. Mr A is diabetic (type 1, that’s the genetic version), so all the little A’s get regularly tested. No, he just feels the lows. I used to be the same, when I was young & slim:-)

    His school has got a healthy eating thing, which is good in general, but means they absolutley forbid any food as snacks other than fresh fruit or veg. Mstr A is not a great fruit & veg eater, and would do better with a sandwich, yoghurt or similar, so he doesn’t snack at school.

    A good example of good ideas making bad rules. Children who have packed lunches can eat as many chocolate biscuits, crisps & such like as they like, but as I want him to have a cooked meal at lunch time, Mstr A has to go hungry at snack times.

    Comment by Mrs.Aginoth | September 5, 2005 | Reply

  19. I began reading this, thinking I was about to learn the Holy Grail of tantrum elimination was a page down click away, when Lauren awoke from her nap.

    Oh Mary, Mary, why so contrary? Waiting with bated breath for part II.

    Comment by ieatcrayonz | September 5, 2005 | Reply

  20. Mrs A: Could you send him with a small container of cheese, or nuts, or something? Just for that one snack?

    Crayonz: Because you value things more if you have to wait for them. Deferred gratification, and all that. Plus I haven’t thought that far ahead… LOL

    Comment by Mary P. | September 5, 2005 | Reply

  21. Although it’s bit off subject now, as I said it’s a great example of a good idea being turned int a bad rule. They are very strict that it only raw fruit & veg. I’ve actually been called into the school & told off for giving him youghurt, raisens and malt loaf!

    Comment by Aginoth | September 6, 2005 | Reply

  22. oops, obviously that last comment was supposed to be from me. that will teach me to borrow his lap-top while he’s out:-)

    Comment by Mrs Aginoth | September 6, 2005 | Reply

  23. Your analysis of us “yuppy” parents is spot-on. However, my hubby and I have worked very hard to overcome our natural inclinations. Our simple way to eliminate (or prevent) tantrums is to not tolerate them and not give into them. We give time outs for having tantrums and always tell our girls – you will never get what you want from a tantrum but if you speak to me nicely and calmly, maybe we can compromise. Works wonders.

    Comment by Jessica | September 6, 2005 | Reply

  24. I do that with mine, too. Develop convenient deafness for anything uttered in a rage or in a whine. It’s one of those blindingly obvious thing that many people miss, when they try to “converse” with this raging child.

    “Speak calmly, so I can hear you.” “When you can talk quietly, we can solve this problem.” And refuse to interact further until they reign themselves in. As you say, it works wonders.

    Comment by Mary P. | September 6, 2005 | Reply

  25. […] I’ve discussed tantrums in some detail in a three-part series, which you can find here (part 1), here (part 2) and here (part 3). If you check under the “tantrum” category down there […]

    Pingback by Experiencing tantrums « It’s Not All Mary Poppins | January 9, 2009 | Reply

  26. […] part one of this series, I mused on some of the parental attitudes and principles that increase the […]

    Pingback by Tantrums, part three: Screaming « It’s Not All Mary Poppins | January 10, 2009 | Reply

  27. […] Last Saturday I outlined the basic assumptions that many new parents make which lay the ground for tantrums. Not, I hasten to add, that your tot won’t have tantrums, no matter how brilliant your approach to parenting. Almost without exception, toddlers throw tantrums. Starting sometime in their second year, almost every child begins to try them on for size. However, how you deal with them will determine how frequently they occur and how long they last. In my experience, a child will try it a few times over a few weeks, and after that time frame, they’re not in our repertoire. Burton White, whom you already know I quite admire, is much more generous in his timeframe and suggests that they generally continue to two or two and a quarter. We are both agreed that if they haven’t been elminated by this time, they will almost inevitably continue to three, four, or over. They need to be nipped in the bud!! […]

    Pingback by Anti-Tantrums, More Philosophy « It’s Not All Mary Poppins | January 10, 2009 | Reply

  28. I loved your point about parents always wanting their child to be happy. I am a parent, a certified elementary school teacher and I run my own home daycare. Children who are consistently saved from being unhappy or experiencing a state of frustration never learn how to be resilient. Don’t we all want to teach our children resilience?

    Comment by how to run a home daycare | August 20, 2012 | Reply

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