The Problem with the Pearls’ One-Size-Fits-All Approach to Tantrums
CC image courtesy of Flickr, Philippe Put.
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.