It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Anti-Tantrums, More Philosophy

I know, I know, you’re waiting with bated breath for the actual hints on how to avoid and how to deal with your toddler’s emotional tsunamis. I had started a post about just that very thing, but then realized I was missing an important foundational layer. I’d talked about the common parental attitudes and presuppositions that foster tantrums. Now I needed to deal with the attitudes and presuppositions that manage and eliminate them. Thus I’m not entirely obliging with the “how’s” just yet, but this philosophical background is important. If we know why we do what we do, we’ll be more consistent, and we are far less likely to be blindsided by our kids.

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!!

What, then, are the attitudes held by a parent whose children weather the tantrum stage smoothly and efficiently?

There is one main tenet of these people: they Expect Respect. No, this does not mean they pontificate and bluster, and expect the child to take it mildly, “because I’m your mother/father, that’s why”. Though that reason is sometimes perfectly sufficient! Rather, they simply do not tolerate aggressions – physical or emotional – against their person.

Thus, these parents believe that while tantrums may be perfectly developmentally normal, the behaviour is simply not acceptable. These parents believe that while there may be reasons that their tot was susceptible to the tantrum at this time (fatigue, hunger, illness), these reasons do not excuse the behaviour, or make it tolerable. These parents see the behaviour for what it is: rage. Yes, there may be some genuine misery thrown in there, but primarily, these kids are flippin’ outraged!! They’re mad as hell, and they’re not taking it any more!

If these are your presuppositions, then when your child has a meltdown, you will not be shocked or outraged; rather, your underlying attitude will be business-like, or even wryly amused. You’ll understand that your child has engaged you in a tussle that it is in everybody’s interest that you master. You will not respond in anger, because this behaviour is only to be expected, but neither will you walk away from the challenge that has just been thrown out.

This is where the second tenet of effective tantrum managers comes into play: they see themselves as their child’s teacher. They will not walk away from the challange because they know this is a critical period: they must teach the child how to manage this. Deal with it now, or be plagued by tantrums for years.

When your child screams in your face, you will refuse to speak to them until they stop. If your hungry child melts into a frothing puddle, you will offer him a snack, yes, but you will still expect the frothing to cease. If you understand that the emotion is not sadness but primarily rage, you will be calm, but you will not move in to cuddle and comfort while the raging continues. The cuddle and comfort comes afterwards.

These parents have a “healthy selfishness”, which enables them to insist on their rights, even as they nurture their child. Your child needs to know – needs to be taught by carefully managed experience – that although he may the centre of your family world, he is not the centre of the universe. Other people have needs, equally important to his.

Your child needs to know that someone can help her through her raging emotions. They need to know these overwhelming feelings are, in fact, controllable, and – even more reassuringly – they are within her very own control! Mommy and Daddy will not let them get out of control; Mommy and Daddy can teach me how to keep myself calm and happy.

How do Mommy and Daddy express this capability? That will be the focus of next Saturday’s installment.

I have a lot of sympathy for these poor little munchkins going through their emotional explosion. Their feelings are very, very real. Real and completely overwhelming. How nasty it must be to be in the middle of an overwhelming swirl of negativity, and have no means of escape! Of course I want to help them, to provide them their means of escape. But for too many people “help” is in fact “enabling” – they are, unwittingly, encouraging the behaviour they wish to eliminate.

It is our job, whether as a parent or in my role as caregiver, to teach them how to manage these maelstroms in a way that is not merely socially acceptable, but also better for them. Teach them the arts of self-awareness and self-control so that they can be calmer, happier, emotionally balanced people. We do that by parenting from a position of self-respect, which will accept nothing less than being treated respectfully by our child.


September 10, 2005 - Posted by | aggression, parenting, tantrums


  1. Once again, nice post, Mary.

    An excellent book that shows parents how to teach their kids to effectively deal with negative emotions is Gottman’s “How to Raise an Emotionally Intelligent Child.” This applies Dan Goleman’s emotional intelligence theory/research to children. I would be a very different parent without this information.

    Comment by MIM | September 10, 2005 | Reply

  2. Oh, how perfectly said, on all levels.

    I’m really looking forward to reading your book, Mary. You’d better get on the ball and write it!


    Comment by misfit | September 10, 2005 | Reply

  3. I’ve been mulling over this post all day; it has me thinking about Parenting Strategies That Failed At My House, namely Attachment Parenting.

    I so wanted to be an Attachment Parent; I loved the idea of breastfeeding exclusively and wearing the baby and co-sleeping. And then we had the ACTUAL BABY, who was premature and couldn’t nurse and had terrible reflux. Henry never slept well in our bed (nor did we), and he hated–HATED–to be ‘worn’. And I felt like a failure.

    And then my sister-in-law kindly talked to me about Establishing a Routine–identifying predictable patterns of eating and sleeping, and structuring the day around them, so that I could do things like shower and go to the grocery. And she emphasized that this would not only give Henry consistency but would give ME my life back (sort of). And I did it and it saved my sanity.

    What made me think of all this was your final point about ‘parenting from a position of self-respect.’ When Henry was born, I felt like a failure because responding to his needs–feeding on demand, co-sleeping, ‘wearing’ him–were not making him happy and were wearing me out. When I stopped trying to follow his lead and started helping him organize his day, we were both less stressed out. And when it turned out, as it did, that he was not like other kids and needed a LOT of structure to function, we already had it! Ta da!

    I am the parent; it is my job to be in charge. I love my sons and I like to think that I am a fun, warm mommy, but there are behaviors that are not acceptable in our family and our house. And when I stand my ground about those, we all get on better.

    Comment by Susan | September 10, 2005 | Reply

  4. I second Misfit.

    Comment by Cheryl | September 11, 2005 | Reply

  5. mim: I read the book for adults some years back, but have never read the book concerning children. One more interesting book for the “must read” list. Thankfully I’m a quick reader! Right now I have “The Introvert Advantage” on hold at the library, because I was interested in the chapter(s?) on the effect of the introvert-extrovert differences on parenting.

    Misfit, Cheryl: Thanks. Each time I post something like this, I worry about those nice people out there, trying their best, who might be discouraged rather than encouraged by what they read here. I appreciate knowing when it’s been interesting, affirming and even encouraging.

    Susan: What a lovely comment!

    I’m sure you no longer feel anything like a failure, as it’s apparent that you are happy with the choices you made, and see how they’ve benefitted eveyone, not the least your son!

    Your comment that you felt like a failure because responding to his needs–feeding on demand, co-sleeping, ‘wearing’ him–were not making him happy really struck me. In fact, those were not Henry’s needs, or they would have made him content! What Harry needed, and what you provided, was stability: identifying predictable patterns of eating and sleeping, and structuring the day around them.

    You were structuring your day around his needs, (hardly the same as denying his needs!) and giving the whole family peace. A win-win solution. Good for you for not being a slave to an ideology and finding the best pattern for your baby and your family.

    p.s. Calling it an ideology is not a shot at attachment parenting, by the way. Any approach to parenting, no matter what its merits, becomes an ideology when there is no flexibility, when the family becomes a slave to the approach, rather than the approach serving the family. Apply such bits of it as work for you, discard the others – if you can do that, it’s not an ideology.

    Comment by Mary P. | September 11, 2005 | Reply

  6. Oh, and Susan? I loved how you found the buffet (not something you eat, you other guys, go read her post – it’s terrific!) and are using it to encouraging care for others. After all, what was chivalry all about, anyway? And Arthur and his round table – egalitarianism and social justice (and keeping all those potentially violent trained-for-war men constructively employed, instead of causing mayhem anbd insurrection, I know. And what a good response it was.)

    Loved it, loved it! (I would have said all this on your blog, but I’ve already commented TWICE on that one post, and I was embarrassing myself. So I’m doing it here!!)

    Comment by Mary P. | September 11, 2005 | Reply

  7. Excellent description of the situation Mary.

    I know that one of our successful weapons in the war on tantrums is structure. We always know when princess number two is low on sleep, because she gets grumpy and explodes at any little thing. On those occasions she gets both a nap and an early night. Problem solved!

    The other successful stratagy is to accept that tantrums will happen, but that they are never to be tolerated. This way they don’t surprise you too much, as you expected them anyway. And, when not surprised, you react better and more calmly.

    Of course, as a mean and nasty daddy, I’m somewhat fond of the “go to your room; you can come back out when you’re happy!” It actually works quite well when combined with my other favourite saying: “cry quietly!” 🙂

    Comment by Simon P. Chappell | September 11, 2005 | Reply

  8. I should say that I was not criticizing attachment parenting or anyone who has found success in nursing exclusively, babywearing or co-sleeping; for some babies and some families, this is clearly the way to go. If anything, I think, I am critical of the idea that parenting is a one-size-fits-all game, and that we should all do it THIS way (whatever that way is) or not at all.

    And I DO think that, in America certainly, the idea that the child comes first ALWAYS is pounded into new parents (particularly new mothers). But I don’t think that teaches children to be functioning members of society, nor does it make for an enjoyable parenting experience. Something like Simon’s ‘come out when you are happy’ approach seems so reasonable, because it respects the child AND emphasizes the community.

    And while I would never say (for fear of jinxing myself) that I am a success as a parent, I no longer feel like a failure. I’m just the mommy, and I’m trying to raise nice, polite, responsible kids. That’s all.

    And now I will quit hijacking your comments section . . .

    Comment by Susan | September 11, 2005 | Reply

  9. Simon: And I’ll bet when Princess2 is grumpy because she’s tired, you don’t waste time trying to coax her out of her bad mood, or excusing her foul temper: you just give her what she needs – sleep! Eminently sensible.

    Like Susan, I approve of (and use myself) “You can come back when you’re happy”. I often use, “You may be angry, but you may NOT scream”. And yes, I’ve also said, “If you need to cry, do it quietly!”

    Susan: YOU, high-jacking MY comments section? I was fearing I was doing exactly that in yours! lol

    No, don’t stop. Intelligent, thoughtful comments are a tremendous compliment, and I both greatly appreciate and thoroughly enjoy them. (Though at some point we may end up exchanging email addresses, I think! Mine’s in my profile, whenever you feel like it.)

    My p.s. was designed to reassure those who have successfully used attachment parenting, as well. Like you, I disagree with the notion of one-sized-fits-all parenting. (Doing it all “this” way or not at all is what I’ve termed an ideological approach to parenting. In my books, ideologies are ALWAYS a bad thing because of their intolerance and inflexibility.)

    I also see that women are encouraged to subjugate themselves to their child’s needs, a dreadful thing to do to yourself and to your child, who must inevitably, if so reared, become completely insufferable! Every parenting approach has its strenths and weaknesses: I see this as the great potential weakness of attachment parenting.

    This is why I keep going on about cultivating a “healthy selfishness”. Children must learn that others have needs, too, needs which are every bit as real and valid as their own, and which must be respected as well. They won’t learn this lesson if they never experience taking their turn in the “needs line”.

    Okay. Perilously close to ranting now. I shall stop and go to bed!

    Comment by Mary P. | September 11, 2005 | Reply

  10. Chiming in late here…early in the morning

    If you said this in your post – then I’ll blame my early morning posting. First, I agree wholeheartedly with “healthy selfishness”. The lovely thing about this concept is that it means different things to different parents – it’s not a one size fits all suggestion.

    The one thing that I think I need to read more – and its not something that I always see in parenting books – is that its okay to have a bad day. Its okay to not be on the ball every once in a while – its okay to be grumpy (but not consistently) the important thing would be to admit this and appologize and know when a bad day is something that needs deeper attention. With that being said, I spend a great deal of my time being a single mom to three kids (when my hubby is away on military exercise). And I feel such tremendous pressure to be calm, self aware, in teaching mode all the time. It’s impossible. I know my limits, I know when to call in for back up – but the guilt loop is what gets me down. Like the balance suggested in “healthy selfishness” – I think there needs to be some healthy balance in allowing ourselves to make some mistakes, and that in the end, its okay.

    What a great conversation here! I am so glad to participate!

    Comment by Heather | September 12, 2005 | Reply

  11. Heather: We parents, and particularly mothers, I think, waste a lot of time feeling guilty when we need not. Guilt that prods us to improve our parenting is a good thing; guilt that nags us about things that don’t matter, or normal human fallibility is pointless.

    Yes, it’s okay to have a bad day. In fact, it’s useful bytimes. When you have one, you model to your children an appropriate way to deal with it (which is not their way – a flaming ball of screaming, snotty, incandescent rage!). Here I make the assumption that their style is not generally yours!

    Comment by Mary P. | September 12, 2005 | Reply

  12. I’ve been reading your blog for a few weeks and adore it.

    Here’s my issue:
    My son just turned one, and he seems to already be having tantrums. Most people consider him to be the perfect child, and he is, 99.9% of the time. Lately (the past few weeks) he’s been exploring a bit more and we’ve been butting heads about what he’s not able to do.

    He knows the meaning of no, and he knows (from my husband and I pointing things out) that he’s not allowed to touch power cords or put his fingers in the VCR. For the most part, he’s pretty good about it, but he likes to test his boundaries. Last week I told him “No” when he grabbed a power cord. After telling him “No” a second time and he still did not take his hand away, I took his hand off and he bit my finger. (He has eight teeth, so this hurt a bit.) He later bit me when I held him straight to change his diaper.

    He hasn’t bit since, and he’s never bit my husband, who stays home with him, but he continues to get frustrated and display it (moving hands up and down rapidly, screaming, etc.). The episode usually only last thirty seconds, and it’s usually when he’s not allowed to do something, not because he’s tired, hungry, etc. Are we experiencing tantrums early, or is this something else?

    Comment by Nicole | September 13, 2005 | Reply

  13. Oh, it sounds pretty tantrum-like to me. If they’re only lasting 30 seconds or so, they’re not full-blown tantrums, but they are definitely the precursor to the Real Deal. The biting is a very clear aggression. So, yes, your little guy is heading into the Tantrum Zone. Isn’t it nice to have an advanced child??

    Frustration is all right. Everyone gets frustrated. Hand flapping and foot stomping are acceptable means of expression at his age. You can help him develop the necessary vocabulary by giving him the words – identifying and labelling his emotions for him. “My, you’re angry. You are just so mad!”

    Screaming and biting are not to be tolerated, of course.

    What did you do when he bit you? What do you do when he screams?

    Comment by Mary P. | September 13, 2005 | Reply

  14. Thanks for the tips. Sometimes it’s tough to know how much my son understands — he can say a few words, and we know for sure that he can understand others, but how much is he understanding and how much is tone-of-voice understanding?

    The first time he bit me, I was in total shock (not to mention pain), and I can’t remember what I did. The second time I definitely told him that biting people was not acceptable behavior. He hasn’t bitten since, although he has gotten frustrated enough to bite, and will sometimes chomp down on whatever’s convenient (usually a sippy cup or his own finger).

    When he screams, I usually tell him something along the lines of “I understand why you’re frustrated, but you’re not allowed to do xyz because you can get hurt.” Is this a good response, or should it be a bit more focused?

    Comment by Nicole | September 13, 2005 | Reply

  15. Yes, more focus would be better. At that age, he will understand a reasonable amount, but short, simple sentences are better. All those extra words are only lots of lovely, rewarding attention. We don’t want to reward this behaviour!

    Keep it simple: “No screaming.” is sufficient. At this age, they don’t really understand your reasons for saying no, anyway, though you should always have one! If I’m going to give a reason, I give it before the no.

    “If you do xyz, you will get hurt. Put that down, please.”

    And after that, they get one repeat of the expectation: “Put that down, please.” Before I act and “help” them put it down. All in a calm, upbeat tone of voice. And end it up with a thank you.

    Comment by Mary P. | September 13, 2005 | Reply

  16. Tantrums at age one were rewarded with a most unceremonious dumping into the crib with a few stern words about not doing that and then leaving them until they finished crying/screaming/snivelling/etc.

    Worked for me.

    The biggest problem was stopping the Queen of All She Surveys from rushing in to them to consol them. Mothers! 😉

    Comment by Simon P. Chappell | September 14, 2005 | Reply

  17. Simon — Luckily, my husband (the primary caregiver) and I are on the same page when it comes to discipline. Our son really doesn’t cry long enough for us to take him and put him anywhere — he’ll scream or cry for a little while, and then snap himself out of it.

    Mary — Thanks for the tips, again. We’ll continue to work through it and let you know how things go.

    Comment by Nicole | September 14, 2005 | Reply

  18. Simon: I’ve used that method with resounding success, yes, I have. I’ve said before that the longer I do this, the more “dad-like” I get. It’s not the only method I use, but when I choose to use it, I don’t waste time feelng guilty. Whether you call it “tough love”, or “healthy selfishness”, or high standards, it’s effective. And after the screaming is over, there’s lots of time for cuddling, reassuring, and teaching.

    Comment by Mary P. | September 14, 2005 | Reply

  19. I realize no one will believe me but my daughter *never* had a tantrum. really. I see now I practiced what is now called Attachment Parenting. In fact I do believe this is reason she didn’t even call me mommy until she was two and a half. I guessing because she had no reason two. And yes she is a adult now and was mostly a easy child. (except when sher was dating boys)

    Comment by Lady Lexington | March 10, 2007 | Reply

  20. I don’t know that her lack of tantrums can be attributed to AP. I used a lot of AP principles, and my kids had few tantrums, none at all by the time they were three, but a neighbour of mine is a firm and devout AP, and her children have them All.The.Time. Even though they’re now 3, 7 and 10 years old.

    Comment by Mary P | March 10, 2007 | Reply

  21. […] attitudes and principles that increase the likelihood that a child will experience tantrums. In part two, I outlined parental attitudes and principles that will reduce the likelihood of tantrums. And now […]

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

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