Babies cry. Babies cry and cry and cry, and you bounce them and you don’t know why they’re crying, and you shush them and jiggle them and feed them and rock them. Still, they continue to cry and you think you’ll lose your mind.
2-year-olds throw tantrums. They fling themselves to the ground and scream, and scream, and scream. They beat their fists against the ground and kick their legs. You try to reason with them. You try to talk softly. You try to be commanding. You try to remove them from the situation. Still, they scream and wail and kick. They catch you in the mouth with their flailing fists as you drag them away to somewhere calmer, and you start to rethink this whole positive parenting thing.
I weathered both these stages with aplomb. I never lost my cool. But all this was nothing, nothing compared to six-year-old tantrums. Six-year-old tantrums make me rethink this whole parenting thing. I can’t handle them.
The tantrums start like this. My six-year-old, Blaise, is hungry, tired, or feeling lazy. We make a simple request. This request might be “bedtime!” or “time to clean up!”
Blaise refuses. “I don’t want to go to bed,” he’ll say. “I’m not tired. It’s not time yet. I want to finish this Wild Kratts.” Or he'll place the blame on someone else: “I didn’t make that mess. August and Simon [his younger brothers] made that mess. I’m not cleaning it up. I don’t want to clean it up.”
“You’re going to bed,” we say.
“You’re cleaning that up,” we say.
Blaise digs in his heels and yells, “NO!”
"I hate you. You’re a bad dad. You’re a bad mom. You’re ruining my fun."
Then it gets murky. We say that we understand he doesn’t want to do what we’re asking him to do, but it’s necessary. He yells, “NO!” again. He shakes his fist — like, actually shakes his fist at us. We resort to threats: you will not get to pick the book tonight. You will not get ice cream before bed, because you must be so tired you have to go right now. If you won’t clean up your toys, you must not care about them, and we will donate some of them to children who will.
Then my son begins a string of invectives that make me want to throw all the positive parenting out the window and turn him over my knee.
I hate you. You’re a bad dad. You’re a bad mom. You’re ruining my fun. You always ruin my fun. You always make me go to bed. You always make me clean up. I hate you. This is all your fault.
It’s miserable. It’s annoying. It’s also wildly disrespectful, which is what really enrages me. I know Blaise sometimes can’t control his behavior. I know that he gets angry. But the string of insults are so rude, and so disrespectful, that they make me want to quit the whole parenting thing.
Part of the reason why I feel so strongly about Blaise's tanrums stems from old childhood wounds. If I had spoken to my parents that way, I would have gotten smacked. So I never let my true feelings known, because I knew they weren’t acceptable in our house. I had to do what I was told, regardless of how I felt about it, and I couldn’t get angry at my parents. That was simply not acceptable.
So when my son gets angry at me, I feel like he’s being disrespectful, and that respect is the most important part of a parent-child relationship. Not love, but respect. When he lets loose a stream of invectives at me, it pushes my buttons, and I lose my cool.
Ideally, I’d respond to, “You’re a bad mama,” with “I know it must feel that way. But I am a good mama. I know you need to go to bed,” or “I am teaching you to respect your possessions and to help the whole family by keeping the house clean. Do you need a hug before you do what I asked you to do?” Or: “Your words tell me you feel angry and alone. Can you tell me a little bit more about how you feel?”
But in the heat of the moment, it's hard for me not to lose my patience. What comes out of my mouth is: “Go clean your room or I’m taking away your video game system!”
Blaise's tantrums drain me of my parenting ability. I have a difficult time responding the way I need to. This is my parenting misery, the thing that makes me want to run away to Vegas, the one that makes me question my decision to get knocked up in the first place. When he throws a tantrum, I dream of graduate school and tenure-track positions. I dream of unwritten novels. But mostly, I want to run out of the house.
Or maybe throw myself down on the ground and scream right next to him.