Archive for February, 2013

The Transitive Property

I thought about titling this something like “Catching Toddlers with Honey”, but I thought better of it.

I’m calling this the Transitive Property because it deals with the notion that things that you treat as small your child will treat as small. Things you treat as large, your child will treat as large.

For a long time, Janelle and I were pretty good about keeping Joshua away from electronic media. It was more or less absent for him when he was very little and as he’s gotten older we’ve kept it set aside as a sort of special treat. He can watch things if he’s with friends and they are watching, he can watch with his grandparents and other relatives, and at home we would let him see or play something maybe once a week if he had been being good.

This was all towards the goal of trying to keep him from looking to the TV or computer or iPad as a primary entertainment source at home. We didn’t want daycare to be his place of outdoor play and enrichment and home to be the place where he gets to watch Disney movies. So, when he would ask to watch things, we would tell him no or try to distract him and steer him towards books or puzzles or coloring books or whatever.

Pretty quickly this became a problem. Joshua would ask to watch things, and we would say no and he would freak out and cry and jump around and just be generally disappointed toddler-style for a bit. Or, if he did get to watch something, when it came time to stop watching the same thing would happen. He would freak out for a bit and this then made us less likely to allow him to watch things and the cycle continued.

We treated TV like a very big thing, so Joshua treated it like a big thing. When it was granted it was a major reward and when it was taken away it was a crushing loss. And why shouldn’t it be? We had framed it that way for him.

Recently, though, Joshua began to learn the art of the deal. Every couple of days he would come in with a new negotiation for us.

“Daddy, the sun is up so that means we can watch something now.”

“Daddy, let’s sit on the couch and we will watch TV while Mommy is cooking.”

“Daddy, I listened to my teachers today, so I can watch something now.”

Lines like the first couple were cute, but not terribly effective. The last one, though, made things interesting. He was asking to be rewarded for behavior we have been working to instill in him and it put us in an interesting position. It would be easy to say no (at this age nothing sticks for TOO long with a kid), but I would be asking a toddler to realize that virtue is its own reward. Toddlers don’t speak platitude. But he wanted to make a deal, so we decided to deal.

We opted to try and catch our flies with honey and to lean more on positive reenforcement for Joshua’s behavior. The result was immediate.

Janelle and I still tend to not give in to Joshua when he asks to watch things. It may be a silly distinction, but we don’t want him to think it can be on-demand. Even if we just wait 15 minutes and then bring it up ourselves, we like the idea of it being something he is rewarded or surprised with instead of just a rote request. But last week we let him play with the iPad or watch YouTube videos on the computer or watch a bit of a TV show on a few days. Each day it was for no more than 15-20 minutes, but it was more regular. We had a drastic reduction in crying and non-compliance through the whole week.

We have begun to treat TV like it can be no big deal, and Joshua has responded to that. When his every request was not denied, he seems to have understood quickly that not getting to watch TV right away doesn’t mean that he won’t ever get to watch it again. He took it much more in stride. And now we Trojan Horse in the moral for him, too. Before we watch or play with anything electronic I get down on a knee and I ask Joshua to look at me and listen to me and then I tell him that he’s getting to watch or play because he was a good boy. He listened to us, or he shared his toys well, or he was nice to his friend or his teachers said he was a good helper.

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I started this post awhile back when we were having, you guessed it, a lot of trouble with Joshua and tantrums. While they have lessened quite a bit, they have not abated entirely and I wager will continue for quite some time. But, take heart that they will get better. Maybe.


A tantrum is going to mean different things to different parents. As we’ve discussed, all kids are different blah blah blah unique snowflakes. Regardless of this fact, there is an immutable threshold your child must cross before you can call whatever it is that they are doing a tantrum. Some parents are incorrect about tantrum status. A tantrum is not when your child gets upset for 3 to 5 minutes and cries because you said that they can’t have a new toy. If it doesn’t cause you to wonder where you went wrong as a parent, it’s not a tantrum. Tantrums are scary shit.

We have yet to find a way to effectively defuse a tantrum. We do know how they start. Joshua’s tantrums start when something upsets his set routines. Typically, though, Joshua is the one who upsets his own routine. He will ask to do something, and then refuse to take any steps to actually accomplish it. When we finally give up asking him to comply and warning him that his time is running out to do whatever it is he’s asked, we’ll announce that the window of opportunity has passed and then the madness begins. Or he’ll just decide without warning that something you did—turned off a light, moved a shirt, stood up from a chair—is something he didn’t want you to do.

Sometimes you can see the tantrum coming. When there’s been simply too much fun had and you’ve got an amped up but super tired kid, you’re prime for a tantrum. When you’ve got a kid who doesn’t feel well, be it an actual illness or something like constipation, you’re ripe for a tantrum. Again, this doesn’t mean that you can stop it. You may just be able to prepare yourself.

A tantrum isn’t just a lot of crying. It’s crying and screaming and kicking and flailing and yelling and just absolute insensate anger. Joshua averages around 30-40 minutes for a for-realsies tantrum and I must stress that this is not 40 minutes of him being moody. This is 40 straight minutes of non-stop wailing. He picks a refrain and sticks on it. “I want to take a shower!” Over and over again without stopping, unless he thinks of something else that happened earlier in the day he was upset about, too, and then he’ll switch to yelling about that. Any attempts to talk to him or hold him are met with “Don’t talk to me!” or “Don’t touch me!” and then, inevitably, “Don’t look at me!” He will kick and flail so hard that he hurts himself by hitting the floor or the wall or even himself (thankfully this is more rare). Then he will yell “Owie! Owie! Owie!” for minutes at a stretch. He’ll cry out that he wants Mommy or wants Daddy, but if you go to him and try to hold him or calm him down you get more of the the don’t-touch or don’t-talk.

It’s hard to communicate what being present for a tantrum is like. Chances are you’ve never been around another adult doing something like this, so it’s a very alien thing to experience. There’s no reasoning or bartering or threatening that can bring about a change in momentum. Everything you send out just gets sucked into a black hole.

No matter how the tantrum started, you will inevitably begin to wonder two things: Is there something wrong with my child? What am I doing wrong as a parent? The answer to each is that there’s nothing wrong. Toddlers will tantrum and you can’t always stop it. But knowing that is useless. You will wonder both things because it just seems impossible that what you are witnessing could possibly be borne of a normal child in a healthy family.

Since tantrums for Joshua occur around nap time or bed time, we cannot really do much to distract him. We don’t want to try to get him off track onto something fun because, well, it’s bed time. It’s not time to head downstairs and try to have a dance party. And, even if we wanted to try that tack, he tends to be upset because he’s not getting to shower or do something bed-time-related anyway. Reasoning and bargaining don’t work. He doesn’t seem to pay attention to warnings that time is running out on what he wants to do. He’s adamant about not wanting to calm down, and about wanting to keep crying.

So what Janelle and I do is just walk away. We leave him to writhe around on his floor and sit on our bed and look at one another with tired eyes. Our absence doesn’t change the mode of the tantrum. It continues unabated. The spectacle will hit such absurd crescendos that it becomes hilarious, and will then just as quickly plummet back to heartbreaking. Just sitting and listening to Joshua rage on like this is exhausting. My chest will feel like I’ve spent the day crying even though I haven’t shed a tear. And Janelle and I are left with our thoughts both rational (that many, many, many toddlers do this regardless of how loving and skilled their parents may be) and the irrational (that we are failing Joshua as a parent and these outbursts are just the outward sign of our failure).

There was a period where this went on more often than not for a few weeks and then… it just stopped happening as often. I wanted this to have more advice in it, but I think with something like a crazy tantrum jag all you can do is try to distract when you can and just ride it out the rest of the time. You don’t have anything to do with it. It’s all about a young mind unaware of the best way to express itself. Unless you encourage it (oh yeah, advice: don’t cave and just give your kid whatever they want during a tantrum), your kid will figure out this particular tactic is a lot of effort for no real payoff. And lately we’ve finally started taking toys away from him when he refuses to stop yelling at us. He’s learning pretty quickly that not only is there no payoff, there’s a tariff.