The other day, as we were finishing up our dinner, my five-year-old daughter asked for some ice cream for dessert. We don’t have dessert after every meal and she had already had a snack of cookies just a couple hours before, so I simply told her “no”.
What followed was an epic meltdown on her part and a major parenting fail on my part. However, we were able to redeem the situation, so I thought I would embarrass myself by sharing the details of this particular disaster in the hopes that it might either encourage you that you are not alone in your own parenting failures or maybe give you a glimpse into what works and what doesn’t work with tantrum-ing children for future reference in your own household. You know, learn from my mistakes.
What Not To Do – “Because I said so”
I was busy trying to clean up the kitchen after dinner, so after telling my daughter “no”, I got back to work. She whined and pleaded and I continued to say “no”. She started shouting and yelling, so I took a deep breath and in my calmest, kindest voice, I empathized, “I hear that you want some ice cream. You really like ice cream. We’re not having some ice cream tonight. The answer is no, go play.” And then I continued doing whatever it was that I was doing.
Her whining and shouting continued, my simple “no” answering continued. We weren’t getting anywhere and we were both beginning to feel quite frustrated. I tried to ignore her, but that didn’t work either. Eventually, she picked up a bowl of pretzels off the coffee table and very defiantly poured them all over the floor.
I’ll pause my story for a moment and let you consider how you might handle this situation. Some of you might pick her up right then and give her “the spanking she deserves”, others might order her to her room, or maybe even send her to bed for the night, there might be more yelling and screaming, and there are probably a few parents who would give up and give in at this point because fighting over a little bowl of ice cream is way too trivial for this much tension. Thoughts of all of these reactions raced through my mind. I’ve read half a dozen “peaceful parenting” books in recent months and was starting to wonder when this peacefulness was supposed to happen.
To continue pointing out my failures, I’ll tell you that I waivered back and forth between all of the above options, threatening, screaming, yelling, and trying my best to “force” her to pick up the stupid pretzels all over the floor. In the back of my mind, I remembered that those “peaceful parenting” books have taught me that power struggles should be avoided at all costs. Nobody wins in a power struggle. As the bigger, stronger parent, I can certainly feel like I “win” during a power struggle with a five-year-old, but winning at the cost of a damaged relationship should never be considered a win, especially in parenting. It takes many more positive interactions to heal the damage done during a power struggle.
After much yelling and many threats, my daughter agreed to pick up the pretzels after I said, “please” (go figure). She wasn’t happy about it, she was still very angry, but at least the pretzels were off the floor. I felt like I had slightly more control over my offspring, so off I went back to the kitchen. And yet, the cries for ice cream continued. For the love of all that is holy, I thought I was going to lose my mind.
The Power of Why
I opened up the fridge to put away the leftovers and saw the container of watermelon cubes that I had chopped up the night before. And suddenly I had the “aha moment” that I needed. She would love watermelon for a dessert. It’s sweet and refreshing, kind of like ice cream, and she loves it. She was the one who specifically asked me to buy the watermelon at the grocery store.
Seeing the watermelon helped me consider why I was saying “no” to the ice cream in the first place. I knew my reasoning in my head, but I’d barely taken the time to think it through myself, and I certainly hadn’t explained my reasoning to her. It wasn’t that she couldn’t have anything for dessert; I just didn’t want her to have ice cream for dessert since she had just eaten cookies and I believe in moderation of sugar.
I knew that setting the container of watermelon in front of her wouldn’t go over very well. She was still very angry, frustrated, and hurt. I needed to repair our relationship and discuss the situation with her like I should have done from the beginning.
I sat down next to her on the couch and pulled her into a hug. Then I gently held her face in my hands so that we could look each other in the eyes. She kept trying to watch TV and ignore me at this point, so I made it a game (getting her to look me in the eye) and got her laughing to release some of the tension between us. And then, when she was a little calmer and a little less angry and hurt, I peacefully explained why we don’t eat ice cream every night. I talked about how ice cream is made with lots of sugar and talked about how too much sugar can make us feel sick and tired, and make our bellies uncomfortable, it can make us unhealthy and not able to run and play like we enjoy. I also reminded her that too much sugar can give us sugar bugs (cavities). I tried to simplify things and make it silly as much as possible so that she’d understand and to keep the discussion light.
I know my explanation wasn’t perfect. I’m still learning how I feel is the best way to handle food issues with kids. I think this is an area that needs to be handled carefully due to body image concerns, obesity rates, picky eating, and more. But I did the best I could in the moment to truly help her to understand the reason behind my “no”. I wasn’t just telling her “no” because I’m the meanest mommy on the planet, but rather, I’m trying to keep her safe and healthy.
Then I suggested we consider other things that she could have for dessert that would be just as tasty, but healthier. I started to suggest watermelon, but then her two-year-old brother came up and asked for yogurt. Brilliant! She thought the idea of yogurt sounded wonderful. She already knew that yogurt was healthier than ice cream and said, “We can eat yogurt anytime because it’s good for us and it’s kind of like ice cream!”
Later, while we were relaxing together on the couch I noticed that there was a pretzel she had missed picking up off the floor. I leaned over and laughingly said, “Oops, you missed a pretzel when you were cleaning up earlier.” She immediately jumped up and happily picked up the pretzel and threw it away.
When our children feel loved and connected, when they truly know deep in their bones that we have their best intentions in mind, they actually want to obey us. The only way that they will feel and know this is through our time, our explanations, our gentleness, and our patience.
I had to stop what I was doing and focus on her needs. I needed to get down on her level and gain her attention to help her understand the why behind the limit that I was trying to enforce. I had to make it fun and easy to comprehend. And then she happily agreed.
Our goals as parents include raising kids who are competent, independent, self-disciplined, happy, and successful. I want my kids to be able to make wise decisions in the future when I’m not around to make decisions for them. This means, that I have to parent with a long-term view in mind. I have to parent with a focus on meeting my child’s needs instead of always focusing on their behaviors. When children misbehave, it is always a sign of an unmet need. My daughter needed to feel heard and to have some control over her own life.
This doesn’t mean that I let her walk all over me, and it doesn’t mean that she gets to do whatever she wants. There must be limits, but she still gets a voice, she still has feelings, and she deserves an explanation. Because in this situation, the only way that she can learn the long term lesson that I wanted her to understand was by stopping to teach it to her. I don’t want my children growing up with an unhealthy sugar addiction. I want her to be able to make good decisions in the future about the types of food she regularly eats and the types of food she enjoys in moderation.
“Because I said so” or a simple, unexplained “no” doesn’t teach our children a single thing. If we want children who can make decisions on their own, we must help them understand what makes a good decision. If we want our children to be self-disciplined, we need to help them learn the value in making difficult choices and sacrifices for long term gain. If we want our children to be competent and independent when they move away from our protective wings, we have to give them a voice and a sense of control over their own lives so they can learn how to compromise with others and solve their own problems.
Obviously, I don’t have all the answers and I’m very much parenting on the fly, figuring things out as I go along. But that’s part of the beauty of parenthood; it’s a journey that we go on together with our children. No one has to be perfect in this relationship, in fact, it’s often in our most imperfect moments that we are both able to learn and grow the most.
Today’s Action Step
Take a minute to think through your last difficult interaction with your child. What could you have done differently to ease the tension and truly teach the lesson that your child needed to learn? What other tactics could you try if a similar situation occurs in the future (because we all know that situations tend to repeat themselves with kids)? By taking the time to think through our situations after the fact we are better able to learn and grow and improve our parenting skills for the future. Share your best temper tantrum taming tricks in the comments so we can all learn from each other.