Thursday, 21 February 2008

Kid Karma

I was given to tantrums, as a child. To this day I can remember them: the awful feeling of not having what I wanted -- the outrage and indignity of an adult standing implacably between me and certain happiness. My parents dealt with it as best they could. That is to say, my father got out while the getting was good, leaving my mother to cope with my rage.

She sang hymns. While I fit and fumed on the floor, screaming my willful head off, she would go about her chores, quietly washing dishes, preparing our dinner, and singing Abide With Me. Naturally, this enraged me all the more, but I have no recollection of her losing control. Not even when, at the embarrassingly mature age of seven, I threw a fit in the toy section of T G & Y.

When I became a mother, for a while there I thought that I had somehow managed to elude karma. Our eldest daughter was a colicky baby, but a remarkably biddable toddler. In her nursery school, she was a sweet, almost angelic paragon of a child, a heartbreakingly pretty, golden-curled charmer with a ready smile and engaging ways. "Let's share this together!" I remember her saying to the children of friends, right before they bashed her over the head with whatever toy was the subject of dispute.

We watched other parents with their toddlers and wondered what in the world they were doing wrong.

Other people's children threw fits on the train and in supermarkets. They struggled and screamed and cried and raised hell. Ours almost never threw tantrums. In fact, I can recall only one occasion when she did: we were buying her shoes and she insisted on wearing them before we had paid for them. At the time, I thought her tantrum was unsettling. But then our youngest came along.

Our youngest was a placid baby, seldom crying unless hungry or in pain. I have a picture of her as a newborn in the baby line-up at the hospital. She stands out not only because she is the only Caucasian infant there, but because every other child is screaming its head off while she alone seems lost in thought, her face as serene and contemplative as a Buddha's. But children constantly evolve: well before she entered the Terrible Twos, she had established herself as someone with a mind of her own.

It is funny now. I can write about how our youngest, at the age of nine months, would flop onto her back when crossed, face and fists clenched in rage, and work her way, worm-like, across a room, tears flying, screams enough to wake the dead. How she bit the wall of her pediatrician's office once, gouging out plaster and drawing blood from her own lip. How, out of over one hundred children, she was the only one in her nursery school to refuse to cooperate during a fire drill. Not a week went by without a major temper tantrum of some sort, and quite often there were several. It was an endless struggle to get her to put on her shoes, keep on a hat, allow me to apply sunscreen or give her medicine. Once, when she was very ill, we even had to force-feed her -- a horrible experience that even to this day it is hard to joke about.

We watched other parents with their toddlers and wondered what in the world we were doing wrong.

"Don't be afraid to punish her!" well-meaning friends would advise, not realizing that they were preaching to the converted. We drew the line at beating her, but emergency swats, time-outs, and acted-on threats and sanctions did not stop her from throwing spectacular tantrums. On one occasion, she actually slipped out of my hands in a doctor's office: she had worked up such a sweat that I could no longer hold onto her. Her reason for the rage? I had refused to let her pull ornaments off the Christmas tree. We began to collect books on managing difficult children; many we bought ourselves, many we received from those who had witnessed our youngest in action. All of it helped to some degree, but the tantrums still continued unabated.

One morning after a particularly exhausting -- and public -- conflict of wills, a kind neighbor took me aside. "I've been there," she confided. "My eldest daughter was just like yours, and now she's the gentlest, most reasonable fifteen-year-old you've ever met." This neighbor went on to tell me her theory: "All kids have to rebel. Either they do it when they're toddlers or they do it when they're teens." She sighed and smiled grimly. "Our youngest daughter was the most well-behaved two-year-old in the neighborhood, but you ought to see her now."

I clung to these words of wisdom like a shipwrecked sailor might cling to a piece of driftwood. Our youngest continued to throw tantrums and through them I tried to hum Abide With Me and concentrate on my neighbor's reassurances. And to make a long story short, our youngest child is now a sweet-natured, gentle, thoughtful teenager. Only rarely do we see a flash of that wild, scary temper that worried us so when she was younger, and when that does happen, there is always a good reason for it -- and she always apologizes.

Our neighbor was right, so I am now offering her words of wisdom to any parents of toddlers who are troubled by temper tantrums.

So if your children throw tantrums, take heart: I myself haven't had a proper tantrum for decades, and our youngest has now become a reasonable human being and is a joy to be around. Our eldest, on the other hand...


Carole said...

It is amazing how different kids can be, raised by the same parents. We on the other hand had a very quiet reasonable one first and he is still that way. Our second was a temper tantrum thrower and still does. He's 32 now. Our third was a cross between the two and still is. The only I hope I have for retribution is when they have their own kids. I am gleefully rubbing my hands together at the prospect of my middle one dealing with tantrums.

Charlie said...

I can offer no parental anecdotes since I was never a father, but I do have a question:

Is your youngest named Paris, Britney, or Lindsay?

The Anti-Wife said...

Have I mentioned lately how much I love my dog?

Brave Astronaut said...

Will you marry me?

Oh, wait. I'm already married. And the parent of a three year old, who likes the word "NO!" and will tell me "I'M NOT COPERATING! [cooperating].

Thanks for letting me know that the light at the end of the tunnel is not an oncoming train.

But in fairness, my son is really very, very good. It is for that reason that when he has these moments, we don't know what to do.

debra said...

Parenting is an interesting journey, isn't it. I was the kid who, when asked why a particular topic was studied in class, responded, "Because the teacher puts it in the lesson plan." And when we were told to clap if we believed in Tinkerbell, I sat on my hands. My #1 daughter had a bit of a rough road---she was certainly a spirited child. #2 daughter often speaks before her brain is in gear.I learned to reframe how I described them---spirited rather than willful; challenges rather than struggles; interested rather than nosy etc etc etc. At those times, my husband and I looked at each other as we reminded ourselves that we wanted our kids to be independent thinkers.
#1 daughter is now a college student in New York City, far away from our old house on 22 acres. #2 daughter is 16. V-e-r-y 16. Very much her own person. Both continue to amaze me as I watch them grow.

Ello said...

Oh I am so there with you. I have a sulker and a screamer. My oldest is an angel. She spoiled me. The other two make my life so very challenging. My screamer is on record for lasting 45 minutes in full scream. Finally falling asleep after the last protracted scream. She is like that poem. When she was good she was very very good but when she was bad she was horrid.

Brian said...

My mother groan'd! my father wept.
Into the dangerous world I leapt:
Helpless, naked, piping loud:
Like a fiend hid in a cloud.
Struggling in my father's hands,
Striving against my swadling bands,
Bound and weary I thought best
To sulk upon my mother's breast

Blake said it all .

A Paperback Writer said...

I live in a culture that nearly always blames parents for the child's behavior, a tendency which I loathe. True, sometimes meeting the parents explains everything about the child. But not always. Angelic parents can end up with the child from hell. And vice versa. (As a teacher, I've seen just about everything.) but the church culture I deal with has this awful folk-doctrine than anything can be cure if parents love the child enough. I don't think that's true.
I'm glad you pointed out (again) that sometimes it has nothing to do with the parents.

Mary Witzl said...

Carole -- Oh, do I know how you feel! We aren't vindictive, we just have a keen sense of justice. And lest I forget and get milder and more gentle in my grandmotherhood, I'll refer to my diary.

Middle children seem to be prone to tantrum-throwing. I was a middle child myself, and I remember lying and using attention-getting means because I felt cheated of my parents' time. I used to tell my youngest, mid-tantrum, that she was getting it all out of her system. That when she became a teenager, SHE would be the reasonable kid. It seems to have worked!

Charlie -- No, and I thank God. But then I would never have named her any of those things... What's with all these last names for girls anyway? What are these mothers playing at?

Anti-wife -- I used to be childless and I marveled at the idiocy of all parents, so gaga over their kids. Now I look at myself and marvel at my own idiocy.

Brave Astronaut -- Thank you! I am definitely going to add that to my list of marriage proposals.

I can remember asking another parent if things were going to get any better when our eldest had colic and was keeping us up every night. He said yes, it would, but then it would get worse again. I laughed, but he was absolutely right. Still, we are so glad we had kids -- honestly. Further proof that becoming a parent seriously compromises your sanity.

Debra -- I refused to clap for Tinkerbell too! The teacher kept saying that a few people were NOT clapping, so Tinkerbell was going to die, but I felt as though I was being forced to do something that everyone else was doing, and damned if I was going to be led! Plus, Tinkerbell was a right bitch to Wendy, even if Wendy was a little too masochistic for her own good.

Your daughters do sound like independent thinkers, and good for you and your husband. We wanted our daughters to be the same, though I think they would have gotten there even if we hadn't encouraged them. The youngest certainly would have... I like the way you found good ways to describe your children's characteristics. I am now trying to tell myself that my eldest is spirited, enterprising, iconoclastic, independent, and, um, carefree. (How do I put a good spin on 'lazy?')

Ello -- My husband and I have often mused that if our second child had been our first, we'd have stopped right there. Japan is suffering a birth decline right now -- young women are deciding NOT to have children -- and I sometimes worry that we may have had something to do with that. Our youngest was a real Birth Control Poster Baby. She was a big bruiser of a kid (now she is a winsome, willowy young beauty) and in addition to throwing tantrums, would often cough until she vomited. We used to clear entire coffee shops when she got going.

Brian -- He really did say it all. I LOVE William Blake -- artist, feminist, emancipationist, visionary, poet. And that is such a lovely poem, and so true -- and yet sadly (hmmm?) he didn't have any of his own children.

APW -- For someone without children, you are remarkably savvy about what it is like to raise them. I would say it is because you teach, but then I know other teachers who have fallen into the trap of thinking that good parents mean good children, and vice versa. I think it is easier for people to believe that formula; it makes the world seem less complicated and mixed up. And love is, of course, absolutely essential, but it needs to be translated into wisdom, cunning, stamina, etc. You need a lot more to raise a teenager than sheer, blind love.

Kim Ayres said...

Mary, if you haven't seen this commercial before, you will love it:

-eve- said...

Wow... this is surprising... I didn't know that gem of information about tantrums;-) Hmmm, no one in my family throws tantrums, which leads me to believe that it IS in the upbringing *my dad used to pinch us black blue for minor mistakes, so much so that I made sure to sit as far away from him at the dinner table as possible, so it isn't likely we'd do anything that might result in more punishment...* I think I wouldn't be able to bring myself to beat the kids really hard, though *so like you, would be at a loss if they started to throw tantrums* Ah, but there's time enough, til I get kids, to worry about tantrums! I'd think a kid in a tantrum must be really irritating - I can just imagine being in a public place with a screaming!

Susan Sandmore said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Danette Haworth said...

Very generous of you to share this experience and your neighbor's words.

Merry Monteleone said...

Now see there, you were using those child raising books all wrong. They only work if you're throwing them at the kid :-)

Every child is different. I have three and they are all different with their own little personalities and dispositions - my middle one is actually my sweetheart, always concerned with others. The oldest is headstrong, but not disobedient, you only have to correct her once and she'll stop whatever she's doing out of line... The youngest, however, will willfully do things wrong and then bat his little eyes at you and smile so that your heart half bursts in your chest... he's a charmer - I have three, it wouldn't work for the other two, it's just his little gift I think... so he'll grow up to be either a con man or a politician... if there's even a difference.

As far as the old parental curse, "I hope you have kids just like you!" I think it's rather mean... not that I won't laugh when it happens to my own kids, but remember, you're dooming their future spouse, who may have been perfectly well behaved as children...

And ya, the whole, good parent = good child, that's a myth made up by soon to be or future parents in order to convince themselves it won't happen to them.

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- Thank you for posting that! I had actually seen it (I think Ello had it on her site), and wanted to post it here myself but did not know how to. One of these days I really ought to take a class or something...

Picture having a kid like that in tow when you're at the supermarket. Picture said kid going into action in front of a dozen impressionable young people of child-bearing age. Planned Parenthood could have used us, I'm telling you!

Eve -- I hate to tell you this, but even if tantrums don't run in your family you could end up with a throw-back! Be sure to check out that video clip Kim has posted above. Now imagine that that poor man is you. I don't advocate unlimited corporal punishment, but I'm a firm believer that in cases like the above, a good, swift swat across the butt can work wonders, as can a whispered "Just you wait until I get you home!" or a discreetly administered pinch. But then your father already had that figured out, so you will grow up with this bit of 'nurture' firmly in place. And I don't want to be responsible for bringing down Malaysia's birth rate too...

Danette -- If you are going through this yourself, my deepest sympathies. These experiences are funny now, but they damn well weren't funny at the time. I would often tell my raging child that she was getting it out of her system -- that one day she would be extra sweet and reasonable because she was shedding all her angst as a kid (her tantrums persisted right up to the age of nine). Amazingly, this happened.

Merry -- I love that quote about the parenting books! My father- in-law used to enjoy telling us that the problem with parenting books was that the kids hadn't read them. So true.

I often tell my kids that I want to make life easier on their future spouses and that is why I am so keen on having them keep their rooms tidy and perform their chores on time. I know a woman who, at the age of 75, received an angry call from her son's wife at 3:30 in the morning. How dare she raise a son who couldn't clean out a toilet, her daughter-in-law (admittedly a bit of a nut case) raged. I don't want to get a call like that, so I'm planning on telling my prospective sons-in-law all about how my daughters tend to leave the bathroom BEFORE the wedding. The great thing about being a parent is that the dirt you have on your kids is far worse than the dirt they have on you.

Phil said...

Well written, entertaining - and most of all reassuring. It's all too easy as a parent to get it wrong and blame yourself. God knows, most of keep trying to get it right all through the formative years of our children - and they still develop in their own way despite us.

Do you think there may be a difference between boys and girls. In my teaching experience - boys can be badly behaved more often, but girls are far more wilful and carry a grudge expertly. Not a sexist comment - just based on eighteen years of working with large numbers of children.

As ever - an enjoyable read.


Mary Witzl said...

Phil -- God, I'm glad no one else is around; I have to agree with you! I don't want to admit this, but girls are, on the whole, more prone to use their words in clever, devious, and hurtful ways. Boys resort to physical means first. God knows how much is nature and how much is nurture...

My sisters and I were lousy at girl intrigue and hated it. We especially loathed other girls who were dishonest or played dumb around boys in order to make them feel superior. To this day I seethe remembering how awful it was to be divided into separate camps. Rough-housing, foul-mouthed boys on one side; catty, simpering girls on the other. As a child, I was largely neuter.

ChristineEldin said...

Thank you.


I smiled throughout this entire post.

Mary Witzl said...

Thank YOU, Chris. I smiled and giggled my way through writing this, especially when my youngest came in and asked what I was writing.

"Just some stuff about you when you were really little," I answered casually -- and I saw her stiffen.

"What 'stuff'?"

"Oh -- you know!"

Parenting is a hard job; we might as well get some pleasure from it.

allrileyedup said...

Wow. I was just thinking today and yesterday that I must be really doing something wrong in the parent department because I have been completely unable to understand or control my daughter's tantrums. Now, I see she's just getting it all out before she's a sweet angelic teenager. I accept!

Mary Witzl said...

My sympathies, Riley. One thing I definitely recommend is sharing this story with your daughter. Wait until she has simmered down, then tell her you know that she is just getting it out of her system. We did this with our youngest and she obviously bought it. It certainly can't hurt.