The Problem with the Pearls’ One-Size-Fits-All Approach to Tantrums

CC image courtesy of Flickr, Philippe Put.

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog, Love, Joy, Feminism. It was originally published on November 24, 2015.

I recently came upon an old No Greater Joy post about tantrums. No Greater Joy, as you may remember, is run by Michael and Debi Pearl, authors of the fundamentalist Christian childrearing manual To Train Up A Child. I was raised on the Pearls’ childrearing methods, and much of my own parenting journey has been unlearning the toxic parenting structures the Pearls promote. Anyway, this particular post about tantrums was written by Tremaine Ware, one of the Pearls’ assistants.

The relevant text reads as follows:

A tantrum is a manifestation of anger. It is a means of control. This sort of behavior usually comes when a child has had a history of not being consistently denied what he wants (when he pitches a fit). He has only received token swats that were as soft as cotton balls, which only proves to irritate the kid and convince him that authority is of no consequence, making his desires the supreme force. Such behavior in a child can be very provoking to you as a parent, so it is important that you maintain mental and emotional control of yourself. An emotionally out-of-control parent can’t hope to bring emotional control to the child. Children are far more capable than we suppose. We unconsciously know this…which is one reason it “bugs” us so bad when they have a tantrum. We know that it is innate selfishness on their part, not immaturity.

So, when your child of any age starts throwing a tantrum, NEVER, NEVER…I repeat, NEVER give in to their demands. Your denial of their lust, coupled with a good stinging swat or two, will cause the child to see the futility and helplessness of his demands. When your child is convinced by your consistent response of enforcing negative consequences for negative behavior, he will cease his vain and tiresome behavior, employing some other means to achieve pleasure.

Fits are just high-pressure demands falling slightly short of violent action. It is not a stage or something they will grow out of. It must be dealt with decisively.

This reminds me of a recent moment when I did just what Ware says not to do—Bobby threw a tantrum and I gave in and met his demands. I gave in, frankly, because his demands were perfectly reasonable and because I don’t believe in standing my ground just to make a point even when I realize I am in the wrong.

In this particular case, I’d taken Bobby to Steak ‘n’ Shake, and he’d been resistant when it was time to leave, so I’d carried him to the car and he began screaming. This happens sometimes. He’s three, after all, and sometimes he becomes overtired, etc. What I didn’t realize until after we were already on the road was that he was screaming words—barely intelligible words, but words nonetheless. He was completely hysterical because we’d left his cardboard car and coloring sheet. I should have listened more carefully from the get-go, but I was tired and ready to get home and had thought he just didn’t want to leave the restaurant. So I went back and had Sally run in and retrieve his car and coloring sheet. The moment I turned the car around to go back he calmed down and said “thank you,” tears still in his voice.

Ware would have me think that I let Bobby control me, that I gave in to his “lust,” that I should have instead stopped the car and spanked my child to make sure he knows “the futility and helplessness of his demands.” Um, no. I want my child to grow up knowing that I value him, and that his needs and desires and interests matter to me. Now yes, I work to teach him appropriate means of telling me his needs, but he’s three, and that’s something he’s understandably still working on.

Does Bobby always “get his way”? No. Note that I carried him from the restaurant in the first place because staying at the restaurant indefinitely when it was late and we needed to get home was not an option. When, for whatever reason, he can’t have his way, I explain to him why that is, talk through the issue with him, and work to find some sort of compromise we can both live with. Sometimes that simply doesn’t work (and I find myself, say, carrying him from a restaurant), but usually it works and we’re able to cooperate rather than being at odds. Just recently I helped him work through a stage where he was demanding that I buy him everything in any store’s toy section by explaining that we don’t have the room to buy everything and encouraging him to note things he would like for Christmas or his birthday. It worked.

When making parenting decisions, I try to ask two questions:

“Am I treating them with respect as independent people?” 

“Am I helping them gain skills that will be useful in adulthood?” 

I should note that I don’t like the word “tantrum.” In my experience, children usually exhibit “tantrum” behavior when they are overtired, overwhelmed, or otherwise overwrought. I prefer the term “meltdown” because to me it seems much more descriptive of what is actually happening. Ware automatically sees children who exhibit “tantrum” behavior as control-hungry and lust-filled, but this is often not the case at all. In many cases it is possible to recognize the signs of an upcoming meltdown and head it off completely. It’s less about control and more about making sure children don’t reach a breaking point where everything becomes too much and they fall apart. Children have much less experience understanding and handling their own emotions, after all, and it is our job to be attuned to their needs and watch for cues that trouble may be ahead.

This said, I also don’t think it’s wrong for children to attempt to exert some form of control over their surroundings. Yes, we as parents need to teach our children that they are not the only people in existence, and that they need to respect other people’s needs as well. But part of this has to involve teaching them that their needs matter too. And children have so little actual control that it’s no wonder they sometimes try to gain some in whatever means they can, especially when they are being ignored by their parent-people. I find that one way to prevent “tantrum” behavior is to make it clear that I, as their parent, am listening to them and care about their needs. Because they know that I don’t say “no” unless I have a real reason to, they’re more likely to believe that I have a reason when I do say “no.”

I want to finish by noting that every child is different, and that one child’s “tantrums” or “meltdowns” may look very different from those of another child. That’s one problem I have with the way Michael and Debi Pearl go about things on their website and in their newsletter and books. They seem to see parental responses as a one-size-fits all approach, as though children are interchangeable. They pay some lip service to children having differences, but they don’t start by urging parents to try to understand what is going on inside their child, and why they are exhibiting XYZ behavior. Blogs like Aha Parenting, on the other hand, encourage parents to start with an attempt to understand the child and their behavior rather than an assumption that they already know everything they need to know.

10 comments

  • The down home back hills Christianity (sic) of the Pearls, here parroted by Tremaine Ware, does not honor the gift of childhood but harms the very sight of spontaneity, of true feelings from children. The Pearls’ injured hearts have not been healed by Jesus, only given verses to shout as they harm children.
    Tremaine Ware could not be more shallow in his take on “tantrums” or more of a coward. Cowards bully others and push them into corners where they are beaten down. The Pearls call this ‘training up’ and sickly pluck scripture to support their need to harm.
    Tremaine, when the child ‘bugs’ you so much by having strong feelings, what is happening is you are being triggered emotionally and forced to begin feeling the deep injury in your own history, a significant injury I would surmise, from the way it has left you unable to be free with children and to love them without torturing them. When you then punish the child, you are really desperately covering over your own pain and harming a child to do it. Get help for yourself and stay clear of all innocent children. (This text from Ware is dated now. I wonder what has become of this man and how many children he has been allowed to ruin over the years…)

  • I might be being to critical, but meltdown is a term that is used by most when describing when a Autistic adult, or child has too much input. Autistics like myself can’t control this. I would love not to sit and cover my ears in a the city when everything simply becomes too much. Comparing this to what a neuro typical child does because you left their toy, or what have you. Makes what Autistics go through seem like it is a choice. It isn’t noise can and does become painful for me. I lose my ability to speak because of it. While a neuro typical child has a reason whatever that may be, it is not the same as a Autistic that it becomes painful, and that is the reason we ”lash out” or ”throw fits” during a meltdown.

    But besides that I agree.

    • Greetings charliejenny, What we call a tantrum or meltdown might well be pejorative and simply a way to please our own needs. When you are overwhelmed with input, you react to soothe yourself, to save yourself from harm. When a child does things that are not the normal expression for them, are more extreme, they are asking not to be controlled and harmed but to be cared for. You have the ability to care for yourself, to cover your ears and block out the pain to some extent but a child punished for their feelings does not get that chance. They are harmed, shamed, blamed, swatted or whatever. By whatever name it is called, it is abuse. You are very accurate in saying that a child is in severe pain and not simply acting out because she is an evil viper. Children who go into behavior that is extreme, need to comforted, assisted, not punished. Little kids are not choosing to put on a show for chocolate or whatever…. Too bad that people are so quick to blame and to harm.

    • I am Autistic too. I also know that the best you can do during a meltdown is to “ride it out” and hope it does not become too destructive, but in the end, it still looks downright disturbing anyway. Nevertheless, I think people overestimate how well neurotypical children control their emotions as well. I think one of the big differences between autistics and neurotypicals there is that autistic adult meltdowns usually remain rather “childish” in appearance and often have a greater intensity, whereas neurotypical meltdowns usually are smaller and only look like that in children. In adults, I think that the neurotypical equivalent of a meltdown is more likely to manifest as lashing out at an innocent target (especially in men). This is why I don’t think it’s a good idea to teach people to repress their emotions. I know that being taught that you shouldn’t cry because it’s “not good self-control” messed me up. This made me think that crying was an act that could get you fired or committed to a mental institution, and made me work like hell for over 2 decades to try to suppress my ability to cry forever. I naively thought that banishing the impulse to cry would also banish screaming, but instead made my meltdowns worse. I consider myself lucky that I did not punch myself in the head the last time I had a meltdown, and although I can sort of “control” it, that “control” consists of acts like lashing out at the double bed in my apartment with both fists, practically throwing my entire upper body into each lash. Punching a pillow would not be enough at that point; it is lucky I have not had a public meltdown in years.
      It would be nice if there was a term other than meltdown (which certain non-autistic people have as well) or tantrum, with its loaded connotations. Perhaps for now it is best to assume that this is a matter of degree, and that emotional scenarios should not have to be “worst case” before they are respected this way. I know that for myself, meltdowns increased when this happened, and I also believe that assuming anything short of a full-on autistic meltdown can be completely controlled, “others” autistics and encourages people to be unsympathetic towards children because they are not autistic. I know that I often felt guilty about getting upset and complaining because how dare I get upset when 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust and others starved in the concentration camps; I don’t want to be similarly held up as the model to encourage kids to shut up and not get upset. I want autistics to be treated with dignity, along with all other kinds of humans as well. If anything short of a meltdown is treated as something that can be just stopped and controlled, it would hurt all people, including autistics – for one thing, it would mean our emotions aren’t respected either unless it is at the level of a meltdown.
      Not to mention that the standards of “normal” that we autistics are held to often do not match the actual behavior of neurotypicals (like being told we lack empathy because we can’t relate to those whose shoes we’ve never been in, when neurotypicals can’t do this either, or parents being told their autistic kid isn’t ready for preschool because they can’t sit at the table without fidgeting for hours, when neurotypical kids fail to do this, or just generally being held to extrovert standards when some neurotypicals are introverted). Rather, these behaviors are extracted from a statistical “bell curve” rather than actual people.

      • Besides, it is never fair to treat kids as “little adults” anyway. Part of growing up is the process of discovery, and no kid should have to conform to a “deadline” of behaving appropriately for adult situations years before they actually have to deal with them. Not only is that part of the reason that such bleak prognoses for autistics are introduced (and our voices silenced when we ask for understanding of autistic perspectives with comments like “[random kid] can’t just expect to hold down a job when he/she [never they] flap their hands/don’t make eye contact/other”), but it is the reason that kids get arrested in the public school system and subjected to these vile methods in the homeschool system as well as eerily similar cousins of these methods in the special ed system as well as other service systems for disabled people (“Strive for perfection”, anyone? Because one of my special ed teachers told me that, and I think that particular teacher was the vice principal).
        If you’re wondering, look up ABA therapy. It is spooky how much the basic methods and motives of this technique resemble those of blanket training; even some of the “positive” methods of ABA utilize techniques worthy of Voldemort (look up “errorless” ABA methods, especially YouTube videos depicting it, and refer to Harry Potter ands the Goblet of Fire, Chapter Thirty-four, Priori Incantatem. The example of Voldemort non-euphemistically practicing this so-called “errorless” method is on Page 660 of the original American edition. If it’s not, it is when Voldemort challenges Harry to a duel and is somewhere in the beginning of the chapter. I won’t say more because I don’t want to spoil it)

  • The first thing I thought about when I read this was my now 5 year old who would have total melt downs. After researching to figure out how to cope with his behavior, I realized he has SPD issues. Understanding that and learning about it when he was 2 has helped me adjust my expectations as a parent, and listen. Usually he just needs to be held and rocked. It isn’t about power. It’s about him feeling valued and knowing his voice is heard.

    • Thank goodness Genealogy Jen, that you trusted your bond with your child and cared to know rather than correct the behavior. It is indeed about love and connection, the need to be held, soothed. Children are never vipers with evil hearts. This is sick, sick teaching.
      It fascinates me that those among us on the spectrum, relate so strongly to this judgmental abuse visited on children by some parents and teachers and others in our world. There is indeed a parallel, a conclusion mistakenly jumped to by some to correct rather than deepen love and caring. First, do no harm….Second, let the child lead. This is a path to endless joy in parenting.

  • One of my children used to have massive tantrums as a toddler and preschooler. She would scream and snarl for up to an hour, hollering at us to come to her so that she could scream at us to go away so she could holler at us to come back, over and over and OVER, until her ability to speak dissolved into inhuman and frankly terrifying noises and she eventually exhausted herself. She was so loud we had to park her in the back bedroom until she was done.

    She also had asthma-like symptoms.

    I could have beaten her for the one and medicated her for the other, and in fact I did medicate her for the asthma-like attacks after one of them landed her in the emergency room. Some moms I knew told me that her symptoms were in line with what they had experienced as parents of children with unusual food sensitivities/allergies, so we put her on an elimination diet. Her troubles went away within a week, then returned about a day after we started drinking a sugarless powdered juice mix again. The juice mix was colored with red dye no. 40. I immediately dropped red 40 from my grocery purchases and she hasn’t had asthma-like symptoms in so long I can’t even remember how long it’s been. The tantrums also stopped. She had her first one in years after eating a serving of a bright yellow poke cake made with three different kinds of yellow packaged dessert, and lo and behold that color is chemically very similar to red 40, so away it went as well. If we’d been beating her for tantrums the way Pearl decrees, she would still be a full-blown asthmatic with terrible mental issues.

    TL;DR: Michael Pearl is full of crap.

    • Jenny, that reminded me of a highly asthmatic/allergic friend who suffered brutally for years due to fundamentalist parents’ refusal to treat his condition. He lived with near-pneumonia-like conditions for many years, to the extent that he had to carry dish towels in his pocket because his nose ran like a fire hose ALL DAY.

      And I get it. Beating children feels SO GOOD sometimes. They shut the hell up eventually. You feel in control. Your culture moralizes it. I really do get it.

      But seriously?? Are allergies a part of rebellion, too?

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