In Praise of the Tantrum

04/20/2015 02:17 pm ET | Updated Jun 20, 2015
Cultura/Robyn Breen Shinn via Getty Images

Behold the tantrum -- saliva-spilling, kicking, screaming, hitting and red-faced frustration over some grand misfortune, such as being forced to wear shoes, socks, or clothes, being asked to hold hands, or being denied a third yogurt or second Paw Patrol episode. As easy it is for us to poke fun at the trivialities of a toddler's frustration, particularly when it is something that is part of daily life or what the sane do to function, I think it is time that we cherish, even praise, the toddler tantrum. At its core is the belief that what we want matters, and in a world in which so little control is given to you, especially as a child, the tantrum is the only sign that the toddler's sheer will is alive and kicking. And we want it kicking, because as adults, when these toddler grow up to work in cubicles and offices, it is their will and sheer want for living that will give their lives meaning and purpose.

It's hard to praise in the face of a full-blown toddler tantrum. Just this morning, my 2-year-old screamed inconsolably because she wanted to nurse (I am in the process of weaning). Her sadness and frustration led her to hit me when I tried to comfort her. Nothing I could say or do would comfort her, and so I let her ride out the wave of her tantrum until she was calm -- and then changed the subject. I think it's important to honor the tantrum and let a child cry. No doubt it is uncomfortable and even embarrassing if it happens in public. But what are we afraid of? This tiny person does not have the capacity to regulate his or her emotions yet, so why is it that we feel the need to threaten or bribe a child out of crying? Just ride it out, I say. Maybe if we let ourselves feel uncomfortable, too, we might learn what it is like to be in their shoes.

Here's what I mean: as a young mother to a newborn five years ago, I began waking up every day feeling as if I had run out of options. I was extremely frustrated with daily life; not only was I adjusting to being a new mother, but I felt floored with postpartum depression on top of it to the point where I began to have severe anxiety that bordered on psychosis. I was at my tipping point, and looking for a way out -- any way out. I obsessed over every safety detail involving my daughter, and looked for things to occupy my time that were unhealthy (overworking, starting and stopping new jobs). If I had just stopped to accept my feelings, my extreme frustration and sadness with the way things were, if I had allowed myself to "tantrum" so to speak, perhaps I would have been able to rise above my feelings quicker, and with a more solid understanding of how to bring back meaning to my life.

Because there is a search for meaning when a toddler has a tantrum, as crazy as that sounds. All day she is forced to sit and stand, come and go, where adult hands lead her, except at play, more or less, when it is considered appropriate. There are limits, but to a child, these limits loom large and seem crushing. I remember the feeling as a 5-year-old looking longingly at a Montessori playroom in my elementary school, which I never got to visit. All I wanted was one day to roam the play kitchens, the set up the pretend office. I dreamed about that playroom because it was not available to me. We want what we cannot have, and for a child especially, what we cannot have it usually something circumscribed by an adult. A child wants play, enjoyment, freedom; to be able to watch endless episodes of Peppa Pig, to walk shoeless in the grass and eat ten yogurts in a row. As adults, we have the options of behaving this way, to be obsessed or addictive. But there is nothing nefarious in our simple wants, desires, to be free. If we allow our children to embrace the urge to want, perhaps they will see later in life how they are able to tame it, and use it.

I'm hoping that my daughter grows up and sees that she is a force, a small comet of will drilling through the world. Tantrum, my darling. I am counting on that frustration, that urge to want, to get you through this life.

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