Tantrums and Stranger Intervention?

The Ogre is home at last! I don’t want to take time away from our reunited little family for long, but I wanted to link to a post and then get your opinion on something. First, read the post from the Matt Walsh Blog:

A kid going berserk at a grocery store doesn’t indicate the quality of his parents, anymore than a guy getting pneumonia after he spends six hours naked in the snow indicates the quality of his doctor. Grocery stores are designed to send children into crying fits. All of the sugary food, the bright packaging, the toys, the candy — it’s a minefield. The occasional meltdown is unavoidable, the real test is how you deal with it. This mother handled it like a pro. She was like mom-ninja; she was calm and poised, but stern and in command.

(Read the rest here)

Now that we’re on the same page, one of my facebook friends said something fascinating when I shared the post:

“Sometimes I wish strangers would be like “Hey kid, stop treating your mom like crap!” Instead of acting like I am incompetent.”

In the combox, a few people said that children should be publicly spanked to embarrass them, basically, into not acting that way in public, and mentioned that strangers used to spank children on the streets. Morality of spanking aside, I think it’s pretty clear to most people that spanking in public is about as smart as crashing your car into a CPS building with all your kids unbuckled and nary a car seat in sight. It’s no longer a viable option, whether we wish it were or not. But why are we so afraid to help other parents out a little, not by criticizing them but by, you know, also being parents? If someone said that to my tantrum-throwing kid, I’d be taken aback and then immediately grateful for the good example of another adult reinforcing what I have no doubt told them a zillion skillion times. Hearing it from someone who’s not mom or dad can often snap a kid out of their meltdown. But I’d also be wary of saying the same thing to a stranger’s kid. What if they took offense? What do you guys think….how would you feel if a stranger said that to your tantrum-throwing child?

  • FatherMapple

    I’m all for holding parents responsible for the behavior of their children, but also very adamant that children are responsible for their own behavior as well. Like most truths, there is a fine line between the two positions where practical reality sits. This isn’t a paradox, it’s the same thing we experience with God on a daily basis: despite the genetics, talents, circumstances and upbringing we’re given without choice, we’re still responsible for our own actions – but those circumstances and un-chosen things working against us are seen as mitigating factors for severity of discipline. Workplaces are liable for their employees’ actions, but not always. Just so, parents should be liable for the upbringing of the child, but not all the individual acts.

    We thread this needle more often than not without realizing it. It’s just ensuring parents aren’t actually enabling or unconsciously reinforcing bad things by their own behavior, while holding the child accountable for the undeniable truth in their human heart of what good and evil is. This, eventually, will get into a discussion on whether there’s inherited sin nature or tabula-rasa like innocence at birth, but by the time the child is actually old enough to throw a tantrum (like the amazing animated gif at the top of the page) they’ve been taught to know better and are therefore either pressing limits or some kind of physical/mental problem like exhaustion or sickness is in play.

    To be safe, I wouldn’t correct someone else’s kid in public. I can’t control how other people respond, and too many people are pessimistic about the intentions of interactions from strangers directed at kids and not the adult (as the comments seem to show). But in a setting where the child is one of many and I notice the behavior and the parent doesn’t, I’ll correct it through non-physical means unless I need to prevent physical harm or life/limb danger.

    Again, the perfect thing to do can sometimes be discerned in a very specific instance of those particular circumstances, but there’s no general principle or guidance we can give as pertains to ALL children and ALL parents for dealing with tantrums in public. C’est la vie.

  • Sus_1

    Just reading about toddler tantrums in public stresses me out because of the memories of the horror I’d feel. If someone said that to some of my children, it would egg them on as they would realize the attention they were getting but I’d feel grateful that someone was trying to help instead being mad that their space was invaded. My other kids would be horrified that someone thought they were treating me badly. That’s my biggest parenting challenge. Learning that what works with one kid, doesn’t work for the others!

    When I see another mom in that situation, I try to convey my sympathies because I’ve been there.

    Store misbehavior didn’t bother me nearly as much as Mass misbehavior. People get so mad!

  • Sarah

    How about instead of embarrassing the kid (which wouldn’t work at all with my girls when they are in the throes of kid rage, we Moms (Dads) could just encourage each other. Something along the lines of, “You’re doing a good job, Mom/Dad. Just keep trying.” and a smile would probably be enough. When my kids are the worst in church, I’d rather hear some encouragement like “you’re doing a good job. keep working with them. we’ve all been there.” than either me or the kid get a dirty look.

  • Meredith

    Public tantrums are one of the many things that scare me about having kids: there’s no right way to respond. If you react with gentleness and attempt to soothe or find out what the child needs, people will call you permissive. If you ignore the child to avoid rewarding their attention-grabbing behavior, people will call you neglectful. If you swat the child, people will view you as an out of control monster.

    I’d like to help in such a situation, but I’m shy and don’t know what I would say or how the parent would react. The one time I intervened with a stranger’s child was at Mass: a little boy was viciously pinching his small sister, to the point that she was starting to cry, and the adults next to them were not even looking down! I tapped the boy’s shoulder and he whipped around, and I said sternly, “Don’t pinch your sister!” His eyes got huge and he kept his hands to himself for the rest of Mass. Even then I was afraid that the parents would be angry, although no one said anything to me.

  • http://getalonghome.com/ GAHCindy

    I keep my mouth shut. None of my business. That doesn’t mean that I’m not making the same assessments that everybody else makes, I guess. If you’re breathing, you’re noticing things. (Such as whether that mom could have done something different or whether that kid seems to be getting rewarded for that behavior, or whether that’s a competent mom whose kid is just being weird like kids are.) I assume everyone has their own opinions about my kids and me, too, when we’re having a public moment, but I don’t want to hear it, and I don’t want to give mine to other moms, either. We do not live in a cohesive enough society to make the assumption that our advice or help would be appreciated, even if we could probably help the poor mother with a word. It’s sad, but we really can’t trust each other’s motives enough to even begin to do anything but smile at the poor mother and move on.

  • David Curp

    One of the many, many things I loved about Poland (I went there with my family for an academic sabbatical in 2009-10) was how adults ALWAYS backed each other up when children behaved badly. No Polish Babcia ever thought twice about reading kids out when they misbehaved – and no child was ever under the illusion that, in a confrontation with an adult over bad behavior their parents would back them against the adult. And children as a consequence did respect adults more.

  • mandamum

    I haven’t read your commenters, yet, but wanted to share one idea. One thing I’ve seen my mom (mother of 8, now all out of the house-ish) do at the store is to go up near a melting toddler (in the cart seat) and say, very sympathetically: “It’s hard to be at the store when you’re tired, huh.” Kid was totally taken aback: how DARE that woman I don’t know talk to ME??? and shut up entirely and stared at her suspiciously for the rest of the time we shared space :) Sometimes it can be hard for a flustered (and shopping, in theory, right?) parent to distract effectively, while a stranger – by their very STRANGE-ness – can do so easily.

  • Lynn

    I wouldn’t feel comfortable directly addressing some else’s child, but I have been known to give a mom a sympathetic look and say something non-committal, like, “Some days are just doozies, aren’t they?” A little bit of empathy and no judgement, because I have no clue what could be underlying the situation.


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