It’s not unexpected that she should argue with me over matters of style. I expect our opinions will be wildly divergent until she turns thirty. As I thought about this blog post, I wondered what image I could attach to it, and if I had a photo of Abigail screaming at me. Unfortunately (for this post, but fortunately for her and her sister) I’m not a terrible parent, and when my children are screaming I console them instead of photographing them.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. It started, as most days do, with the dawn. The dawn hadn’t even finished its work when she was standing beside my bed, telling me that it was “morningtime” (always, only one word). I got up, made coffee, made breakfast, made ready the bath. It was Sunday, and we weren’t rushing, so by the time they were bathed and dressed it was 10am. That left us about 20 minutes to leave for church if we wanted to make it on time.
I picked up a hair brush and a rubber-band and sat on the couch, where Abigail was reading a book.
“Are you going to do my hair, daddy?” she asked. I was already brushing it.
“Yes, I am. I’m doing it now. See?” I showed her the piece of hair. She turned the page and I slipped her long hair through the rubber-band once, twisted, and again, twisted, and again.
“What are you doing to it?” she asked.
“I’m giving you ponies.”
Before I even finished the word, tears were rolling down her cheeks and she was screaming, “Not ponies! I don’t want ponies! Not pooonnniiieeessss!”
My mom is always telling me not to get into power struggles, and I understand why. There’s really nothing to beat the fixed mind of a three year old.
I think a mistake some parents make is thinking that a tantrum is always a manipulative tactic. I disagree with this. If you train your child to cry in order to get a reward, a tantrum might become a learned behavior that elicits treats, but if you aren’t rewarding your child for crying by placating them with the thing they are crying about, you aren’t training this behavior. For children who have not been thus reinforced, a tantrum is a genuine thing. This is an outpouring of emotion so strong that they can’t control it. Even if the thing they’re having an outburst about is completely ridiculous, the emotion is true.
It’s kind of unfair to yell at anyone, but especially a child, for the way they feel. It’s tough when tantrums hit in the middle of the store, or at a nice restaurant. Our pony-tail tantrum was tough, and it happened at home. But I think the right response to a tantrum is loving consolation.
There are behaviors within a tantrum that aren’t acceptable at all. Hitting is one of these, being mean could be another. While they should be prevented, I don’t think trying to punish for them during the tantrum is the right way to go. A tantrum just has to be got through, and consequences should happen after the emotion has ebbed. I’m talking about kids under 5 here. If you have an 8 year old throwing a tantrum in the middle of Target, I think the gloves can come off. At that stage developmentally there’s a need to understand limits and acceptable behavior, toddlers and preschoolers have the same needs but they also have a lot less self-control and aren’t very practiced at soothing themselves. It’s important to know your child and meet them where they are.
Of course, all of this is exactly what I didn’t do when Abby broke down.
“Honey, your hair looks so pretty like this!” I said.
“No ponnnieeesss!” she said. She wailed, really. What followed was six or seven minutes of me asking Abigail to go look in the mirror, and promising that I would take her ponytail out if she didn’t like it. It was as if I was asking her to climb into a bathtub full of snails. Or give her sister a doll. There was a lot of screaming (her) and quiet arguing (me).
Finally I picked her up and carried her into the bedroom. I set her down in front of the full length mirror and she collapsed to the ground like a dead thing, except for the sobs. I gave up on my idea of what was important, reached down and took her hair out.
Oh, it bears mentioning that throughout this meltdown, Katie kept walking around, playing with things, and occasionally coming over to climb on me and give me a kiss. She was smiley and adorable and it was hard not to laugh at the juxtaposition.
Having taken Abby’s hair out, I expected things would be okay. And that’s exactly how emotions work, right? Of course not. Abby kept crying for about ten minutes, and for some reason I got really annoyed. I love her so much, and I hate to see her upset. The thing she was so upset about was so trivial that I was bothered by her emotion. At one point I said, “Abby, I took your hair out. Is it still in a ponytail? It’s not. You can have it however you want. I just wanted you to see it.” I regretted it instantly. Rhetorical questions aren’t respectful, and I wasn’t comforting my daughter, I was just trying to make her stop crying, because I didn’t think she had a good reason for it.
But the emotion was real.
Eventually she calmed down, and we did go to church. She was emotional, and we were late, but she had fun with her friends and everything worked out in the end. On the balance, I’m still a great dad, but next time she says “I don’t want ponies!” and starts to cry I think I’ll just pull the rubberband out, say “Okay sweetie. But you don’t need to cry, you can just tell me what you want. Deal?” and skip the half hour of being emotionally overwrought.