THE WASHINGTON POST – Q: I had some friends stay with me who were in town for a wedding. On the morning of the wedding, we took my kids (four and two) to the park, where there was a little carnival. When it came time to leave, my two-year-old had a meltdown, saying that she didn’t want to leave. Not wanting to invalidate her feelings, I did what I normally do in this situation: let her cry, sat with her and talked to her about how it was OK to feel sad. We started walking toward the exit and had to take a few more breaks for her to cry and for me to acknowledge her feelings and compliment her on taking deep breaths and holding my hand. I felt like a good parent, but my friends were visibly annoyed. We had cut the timing close as it was, and then this episode probably added another 20 minutes beyond that, meaning they were rushing to get ready for the wedding.
Would there have been a better way for me to handle that? I could have just picked her up and walked her out, but I knew that would turn into a full-fledged kicking and screaming tantrum and not provide any growth for her. I allowed her to come to terms with the situation and work through her feelings. But, obviously, I made my friends late. Should I have just scooped her up and marched to the car with the thought that one tantrum wasn’t the end of the world? Or was I right to work through it with her?
A: Oh boy. I have to be honest here; if I were your friend, I would have been annoyed, too. Whether your friends have children and understand the wretchedness of a tantrum or not, stopping and talking to your crying two-year-old over and over when a wedding was looming would have put me right over the edge.
But I hear that you care, both about your friends and your children, so let’s take a closer look at this scenario.
To begin, there is no right answer when it comes to handling a tantrum from a two-year-old, though there are some definite wrong ways to handle a tantrum: spanking, hitting, shaming and screaming your head off come to mind. So, do I think you were a disaster leaving the carnival? No, not at all. Allowing a child to cry, sitting and listening to her big feelings, complimenting her on taking deep breaths, and holding her hand? Heck, let me take a couple of pages out of your patient parenting book – it’s impressive to keep your cool like that!
While you were doing all this listening and complimenting, you failed to recognise what a friend of mine at the Parenting Encouragement Program calls the needs of the situation. At any point in our parenting lives, the needs of the situation are changing. Your two-year-old is throwing crayons on the floor at crowded, loud and chaotic pizza place? The needs of the situation do not point to anything dire; sit back and relax. Your two-year-old starts to throw crayons on the floor at Aunt Karen’s 60th birthday party, complete with fancy shoes and white tablecloths? The needs of the situation demand that you get the crayons off the floor and the child busy with something else, stat. Your teen is sitting on his phone while everyone attends a football party at a neighbour’s house? The needs of the situation may dictate that you don’t sweat it. But say you’re attending a sit-down dinner at a co-worker’s house? You may say the needs of the situation are that the teen smile and make small talk with the family. It’s about taking in the context and making the best parenting decision you can.
In your case, the needs of the situation were that people get into a car and get ready for a wedding. Period. That means you pick up your child, surfboard style, and high-tail it out of the carnival, complete with kicking and swinging limbs. It was not the time or place to have chats, sit and listen, and more. Nope. Grab the kid and go.
And lest you think that this is hurtful to your child, allow me to give another perspective. For starters, two-year-olds are notoriously emotional creatures, so if you were to try to listen and talk out all of their feelings all of the time, you may potentially never do anything else ever again. Speaking out of pure practicality, all of this attention just isn’t a good use of your parenting time. Stuff has to get done, right? Second, giving all of this attention (stopping, sitting, talking, eye contact, hand-holding, breathing exercises) can actually grow the very problems you are trying to extinguish. I am not suggesting compassion causes parenting problems, but 20 minutes of this kind of attention for a two-year-old? It’s pretty powerful for their young brains, and you aren’t doing your kid any favors to allow her to think that you (and every adult near you) will stop and listen to all this crying all the time. If you keep up this lengthy attention process, you could find yourself parenting a budding brat.
This is all confusing, because many parents receive the messages that everything you did in this letter is the pinnacle of parenting, but holding a firm boundary is also just as important as listening. It was not fair to the two-year-old, you or any of the adults waiting (not to mention a bride and groom) to allow these carnival shenanigans to play out for so long, and the two-year-old only learned that she can make you stop and go at her will. Though no one enjoys a boundary, this is how your two-year-old learns you love her and the car still needs to go. Boundaries are critical in helping children adapt and become resilient, so please know that carrying her out of the carnival, while loud and messy, is not hurtful, mean or impatient parenting.
Will there be days when you can stop and listen and breathe with your children? Yes. Just discern when the situation calls for that kind of patience or when the situation calls for you to step up, hold a boundary and get to a wedding on time. Good luck.