A: Oh boy. I have to be honest here; if I were your friend, I would have been annoyed, too. Whether your friends have children and understand the wretchedness of a tantrum or not, stopping and talking to your crying 2-year-old over and over when a wedding was looming would have put me right over the edge.
But I hear that you care, both about your friends and your children, so let’s take a closer look at this scenario.
To begin, there is no right answer when it comes to handling a tantrum from a 2-year-old, though there are some definite wrong ways to handle a tantrum: spanking, hitting, shaming and screaming your head off come to mind. So, do I think you were a disaster leaving the carnival? No, not at all. Allowing a child to cry, sitting and listening to her big feelings, complimenting her on taking deep breaths, and holding her hand? Heck, let me take a couple of pages out of your patient parenting book — it’s impressive to keep your cool like that!
While you were doing all this listening and complimenting, you failed to recognize what a friend of mine at the Parenting Encouragement Program calls the needs of the situation. At any point in our parenting lives, the needs of the situation are changing. Your 2-year-old is throwing crayons on the floor at crowded, loud and chaotic pizza place? The needs of the situation do not point to anything dire; sit back and relax. Your 2-year-old starts to throw crayons on the floor at Aunt Karen’s 60th birthday party, complete with fancy shoes and white tablecloths? The needs of the situation demand that you get the crayons off the floor and the child busy with something else, stat. Your teen is sitting on his phone while everyone attends a football party at a neighbor’s house? The needs of the situation may dictate that you don’t sweat it. But say you’re attending a sit-down dinner at a co-worker’s house? You may say the needs of the situation are that the teen smile and make small talk with the family. It’s about taking in the context and making the best parenting decision you can.
In your case, the needs of the situation were that people get into a car and get ready for a wedding. Period. That means you pick up your child, surfboard style, and high-tail it out of the carnival, complete with kicking and swinging limbs. It was not the time or place to have chats, sit and listen, and more. Nope. Grab the kid and go.
And lest you think that this is hurtful to your child, allow me to give another perspective. For starters, 2-year-olds are notoriously emotional creatures, so if you were to try to listen and talk out all of their feelings all of the time, you may potentially never do anything else ever again. Speaking out of pure practicality, all of this attention just isn’t a good use of your parenting time. Stuff has to get done, right? Second, giving all of this attention (stopping, sitting, talking, eye contact, hand-holding, breathing exercises) can actually grow the very problems you are trying to extinguish. I am not suggesting compassion causes parenting problems, but 20 minutes of this kind of attention for a 2-year-old? It’s pretty powerful for their young brains, and you aren’t doing your kid any favors to allow her to think that you (and every adult near you) will stop and listen to all this crying all the time. If you keep up this lengthy attention process, you could find yourself parenting a budding brat.
This is all confusing, because many parents receive the messages that everything you did in this letter is the pinnacle of parenting, but holding a firm boundary is also just as important as listening. It was not fair to the 2-year-old, you or any of the adults waiting (not to mention a bride and groom) to allow these carnival shenanigans to play out for so long, and the 2-year-old only learned that she can make you stop and go at her will. Though no one enjoys a boundary, this is how your 2-year-old learns you love her and the car still needs to go. Boundaries are critical in helping children adapt and become resilient, so please know that carrying her out of the carnival, while loud and messy, is not hurtful, mean or impatient parenting.
Will there be days when you can stop and listen and breathe with your children? Yes. Just discern when the situation calls for that kind of patience or when the situation calls for you to step up, hold a boundary and get to a wedding on time. Good luck.