After fifteen years as a “child care professional” I’ve dealt with my fair share of tantrums, and deem myself, if not an expert, then rather good at dealing with them. They, (or it), are (is) basically a person who has been pushed past their limit, and who has “lost it.” Sometimes it’s the child and not their parent.
The word “tantrum” itself is sort of interesting, for it likely is a word with multiple roots, which is to say similar-sounding words from different languages with vaguely applicable meanings were spliced together into the word we now wield.
One root is French, and means the noise made by trumpets, a fanfare, the French “trantran”, an imitative word for hunting horns, or an uproar. A second root is the German root “tand” which described vanity, especially shallow and even silly vanity. And a third root is Welsh, “tant”, which means to be stretched thin, and can be used for tempers, the strings of a musical instrument, or the tendons of our body. In fact the Latin derivation for “tantrum” may be from what gives us the word “tendon”, the verb “tendere” which means, “to stretch thin”.
In any case, all that reason went into what means losing reason, and what we locally call, “throwing a spaz.”
One reason I think I am good at handling tantrums is that I myself would be the pot calling the kettle black if I pretended I was above “losing it” from time to time. In a sense my life has been one long tantrum against a society which seems increasingly nuts. It is everyone else’s fault; their insanity makes me insane.
When I see a small child losing it I remind myself I may be in the presence of genius. Winston Churchill was said to be a hellion at school; his classmates remembered cringing and thinking, “Don’t say it, Winny; don’t say it,” but he would always say it, whatever “it” was, to the teacher, which meant, in those days of corporal punishment, he had to be caned. However part of his genius was his ability to stand up to dictators.
I would also be a hypocrite if I denied the fact that, from time to time, I myself haven’t just blown off my responsibility and played hooky, in a sense acting out a tantrum. In July of 2017 I wrote a long post called “The Forthright of July” about how all the people who promised to help me weed the garden had skipped town, and were enjoying freedom as I was a slave to the garden, and it ended with me skipping the weeding as well, and writing this sonnet:
Going to the beach on a hot July Mid-morning with the stain of brass heat draped On every bough and street, and in my eye Even shadows hazed gold, nothing escaped The heat…but I am. Like a boy Playing hooky, the consequences fade In the face of surging, giggling joy. While it may be true we’ll sleep in beds unmade, Face stern principles, grip hungover foreheads, That’s all far away. Now we’re on our way To the beach, and like flowering dawn sheds The dark dreads of night, joy drives gloom away. We’re all going to die, but boys playing hooky Have light in their eye, and life’s their cookie.
Of course, there are consequences to playing hooky. If you don’t weed you wind up with a weedy garden; you reap what you sow. If you can’t do the time don’t do the crime. If you have your way you must pay. That is something I must communicate to the small child who is throwing a tantrum.
However one element of a tantrum is a refusal to communicate. The child is fed up with talk. They want their way and don’t care what you say.
The State of New Hampshire requires a certain amount of “adult education” for teachers, which is something I could tantrum about, but usually don’t. When I first opened my Childcare with my wife I’d already raised five children, coached boy’s teams, taught Sunday School, and volunteered as my wife ran a small town’s recreation department and swimming pool, yet some of the young women teaching “adult education” were half my age. (Now, as I approach my seventieth birthday, they’d be a third my age.)
My teachers were fresh out of college, had no children, and were brimming with bright ideas which tended to be contrary to the bright ideas which were in fashion ten years earlier. For example, the idea of “time outs” was all the rage for a while, but then suddenly were called “oppressive” and were frowned upon. Likewise “permissiveness” seems to come into fashion until it is called “spoiling”.
In actual fact one needs to use “time outs” when they work, and avoid them when they don’t work. No single approach works; one shouldn’t be swayed to one side and a single approach; one needs a full repertoire, and sometimes even that isn’t enough, and intuition must supply some new approach out of the blue. However I did attend the “adult education classes”, if only to learn what new laws I was breaking.
One law I broke involved “physical restraint”. When we first opened our childcare people were terribly worried about “abuse”. Small children are very physical, but even hugging was frightening to some, who feared sexual perversion. We all needed to be finger-printed and get background checks, before we were even allowed on the premises. (Even a farmhand who shoveled the stables on weekends when we were closed was officially supposed to be fingerprinted, though I broke that law at times.) Any sort of corporal punishment was taboo, and even to physically grab a child and snatch them from danger was seen as a last resort, (as if one had time to carefully analyze during such an emergency.) However when a child was throwing a tantrum and disturbing the rest of the children I’d grab the little sucker and cart him outside, ignoring his or her screeching and caterwauling, and also likely ignoring the latest law.
I was very gentle but very firm. Once things had reached a certain point I felt it was wrong to give in, for it was like attempting to appease a small Adolph Hitler. I reached this conclusion when we first opened our Childcare, before I had learned many of the tricks I now use to distract the child from refusing to communicate, luring them into a conversation.
This particular child had learned to throw a fit to get his way at home, and needed to learn that different behavior is required in public, where he was one of twelve small children. Like many children he liked routine, and complained when things didn’t happen in the same order, but he also didn’t like the part of the daily routine where “play time” turned into “circle time”.
“Circle time” involved singing songs and playing games which taught children a so-called “curriculum” involving learning colors, shapes, numbers, and opposites such as above-and-below. Personally I found such “curriculum” tedious and saw children learned the same things if you just used the words in other activities, but “circle time” did seem to teach a lot about having good manners and working as a team. However this little boy didn’t like putting away a toy truck and sitting in a circle. He had older brothers who taught him rude words, and looked at me with an innocent face and said, “Fuck circle time.” He had just turned three-years-old.
I knew the boy’s father would have just laughed, and might have even praised the lad, while the boy’s mother would have just rolled her eyes and walked away. However I decided to do battle, for, though I know one must chose their battles, this fellow was definitely testing a limit. Also I knew appeasement wouldn’t work. If I left him playing with his trucks and attempted to conduct circle time with the other eleven children and the other teacher, he would not play quietly in the corner, but would roar his truck through the middle of the circle. Therefore I broke several laws.
New Hampshire has a rule that states there must be an adult for every six children under five years old, but for a while the other teacher had to deal with eleven, for this small boy needed one-on-one attention. Other laws involve not hurting children, and children seem to instinctively know they deserve some sort of protection, and bellow “You’re hurting me!” even as you are being as tender as you can possibly be. “Ow! Ow! Ow! You are hurting me!” they screech as they claw, bite, kick you in the shins, and break your glasses. “Stop! You’re hurting! Aurrrrgh!” Meanwhile you remain calm, move them gently away from any walls they can bang their head against (while accusing you of banging their head against the wall), and attempt to engage them in a conversation, which of course is the one thing they don’t want to do.
They don’t want to talk. They want to get their way. The entry point to a dialog is usually an argument about who is hurting who. I very calmly say, “I am not hurting you. You are hurting yourself. Why are you doing that?” In the case of this small boy, to even ask such a question was infuriating, and made him all the more determined to get his way.
For an hour and a half I sat on the front steps on a lovey summer morning with the boy screaming. I wondered why some neighbor didn’t call the police, and also was starting to think I’d chosen the wrong battle. I wondered why the boy didn’t lose his voice. I wondered why the sky stayed blue and the sun still shone and the birds kept singing and the leaves stayed green. I began to yearn for an aspirin.
In a sense the boy had won, for he had completely avoided circle time, so I was asking him if he wanted to stop screaming and go in for snack time. However he seemed to feel if he stopped screaming he’d lose, and continued. I had assumed he’d lose at least his voice, after an hour, but he seemed inexhaustible. I continued to not give in, firm but gentle, asking quiet, repetitive questions. Then, abruptly, he grew quiet. I silently praised God, and then I asked the child, “All done?” He nodded. “Can you go inside and not scream?” He nodded again. I released my gentle grip and we stood up to go in, and as we walked inside he reached up and took my hand.
The interesting thing, to me at least, was that the boy never threw another tantrum. I imagined that in some way he had tested a limit, and met his match. Not that he didn’t complain and whine at times, but for the most part he was more cooperative than the other tykes, after our battle.
It became a lodestone for me, “Never give in to a tantrum”, however I’ve become better at avoiding such battles. And I’ve never again had one go on so long, since that summer day. (Sulking doesn’t count; sulking is not the same as a full blown tantrum.)
This Monday will be my seventieth birthday, and retirement is looming. When dealing with various tantrums the past month I’ve felt a surprising thing: I might actually miss them. Not that they are pleasant, but the communication that occurs within them is unique and interesting, once you get it going.
One law I suppose I break midst the battles of tantrums involves calling a child a “baby”. There is a fear doing so could scar the child’s psyche for the rest of their life. (What is the difference between a “scarred” and a “molded” character? I’m never entirely sure. What a drill sergeant calls “molding” nearly everyone else would call “scarring.”) Anyway, I’ve heard one way around “scarring” is to avoid saying the tantrumer is a baby, which is “labeling”, and instead to ask questions about how babies behave, as opposed to how “grown ups” behave; (five-year-olds consider themselves “grown ups”, when with three-year-olds.) I’ve broken the declines of a couple of tantrums the past month by utilizing the word “baby” in a hopefully correct way. If it was incorrect, all I can respond with is, “all is fair in love and tantrums”, and also, “if you don’t like it, fire me”.
One event involved a small girl throwing an absolute fit about having to put on snowpants when it was “too hot”. It was barely above freezing, and the snow was wet, which made snow pants all the more advisable, but she was flopping about on the floor and kicking her feet. I stroked my beard sagely and then inquired if she was behaving as a baby might behave. She glared at me and informed me her mother said she was THE baby. I then gestured at a two-year-old who was putting on her snowpants close by, and asked, “How about her?” The girl grinned and said, “No, she’s not a baby.” I nodded like Spok on the old Star Trek show and said, “Interesting. I see.” Then I had the five-year-old sit in the sun on the porch with snow pants she didn’t have to put on, unless she left the porch. After sulking a while she put them on and rushed off to play.
However I got an interesting insight from the exchange. I’ve read about how, in Victorian times, the upper classes in England, both women and men, required “dressers” in order to get into their fancy outfits. I’ve often thought what a pain (a royal pain) that would be. It would be bad enough to not know how to drive a car and to require a chauffeur, but to not know how to dress? But…I had just heard a five-year-old explain she was a baby while a two-year-old was not. Perhaps the girl was going to be the next Winston Churchill.
Then I had another exchange with a tough young boy who enjoys “rough-and-tumble” and often laughs at getting clobbered. I’ve seen him kick the shins of boys older and bigger than he is, and when he is promptly shoved and sent flying flat on his back, he laughs. It is as if he enjoys the attention so much he disregards the pain. However one time he was whining and whimpering about how his snow-pants were tucked wrongly into his boots. I had eleven other children to dress, and perhaps was frazzled, and a bit short. I said I’d get to him, but he wanted attention right NOW. So I pointed at the two-year-old, who once again was getting her snow pants on (because she takes great pride in doing things “all by her self,”) and I said, “A baby can do it.”
Apparently I’d thrown down a gauntlet, for the boy thrust out his jaw and challenged me with, “I’m not a baby! You’re the baby!” I smiled and said, “You know, you may be right. When you kids drive me crazy, maybe I do become a big baby.”
The boy’s face was split by an ear-to-ear grin, and he went outside guffawing loudly. Apparently he had forgotten all about how uncomfortable the cuffs of his snow pants were.
Another day; another tantrum dealt with.
After the tantrum, the small, tired child Reaches a little hand up while walking With the elder, secure that they'll be smiled Upon. There is no need for talking. The big hand gladly takes the little one's. All is forgiven, and the elder's pleased More by the gesture than by the loud drums And cymbals of worship. All stress is eased And the rich nothing of peace's well-being Slants like sunbeams in the late afternoon Of summertime: Gold more worth seeing Than the cold kind. Do not say, "God, come soon," For He's already here. I, in my pride, Have tantrumed, but He's here at my side.