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Terrance Heath Headshot

The Tyranny of the Tantrum

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As the parent of a small child -- who is apparently entering the "terrible twos" a few months early -- I tend to put things in that context sometimes.

What we're seeing from the health care town halls, what we've seen from the "birthers" and what we saw during the campaign is essentially what I call "Tyranny of the Tantrum," which many parents encounter at the onset of the "terrible twos."

Tantrum

You've been warned about the "terrible twos," but you may be unprepared for this rite of passage if your child has been cooperative up until now. The stage doesn't always begin exactly on your child's second birthday. Development experts say it can strike as early as 18 months and as late as 30 months (though some angelic children never go through this phase). How do you know if you're in the midst of the TTs? Look for new signs of assertiveness from your toddler. Hallmark behaviors to watch for: He may insist on doing exactly what you've told him not to do or throw himself down on the floor in a fit of temper if he doesn't get his way. His demands may alternately frustrate and amuse you. At times, for example, he'll likely ask for something that he doesn't even want, just to see if he has enough power to get it.

See, small children like Dylan -- who is just 21 months old -- sometimes have trouble with change. They don't like it. They don't like it when their environment changes; like when it's time get out of the tub, dry off and put pajamas on, or when it's time to stop playing long enough for a diaper change.

Put another way, they don't like transitions -- that uncertain period between the end of one thing and the beginning of another, when they're not quite sure what's happening, where they're going or what's next. They just want to either keep doing what they were doing or go back to where they were, because it's what they've gotten accustomed to.


Transitions -- putting the brakes on one activity and starting right up with another one -- are tough on toddlers. Bedtime may be one of the hardest, but others, such as leaving the playground, having to stop playing to get in the car for errands, or being left in a babysitter's care as Mom and Dad walk out the door can also elicit tears and tantrums. After all, toddlers live in the moment, don't have a real concept of time, and are only just beginning to understand that separations don't last forever, says Gail Reichlin, executive director of the Parents Resource Network in Chicago.

On top of that, they don't have the language skills to say, "I'm right in the middle of something. Just give me five minutes." Instead, they often resort to tears or tantrums when told it's time to stop what they're doing. Temperament also plays a part in how your little one handles transitions. Some children, just like some grown-ups, oppose anyone who wants them to make a change.

When they are unable to keep things just as they are, they throw a tantrum. They cry, kick and scream. They go limp, or rigid, making it difficult to move them. They hold on to whatever's handy, and don't let go.

Being the adult, the grow-up, the parent, etc., I know we can't stay in the same place indefinitely. I know sooner or later, we have to put the groceries in the car and go home, or stop playing long enough to have dinner. I know that the transition -- whether from the grocery cart to the car, or from the bathtub to the towel -- is a necessary part of moving on to what's next, even if my two-year-old doesn't.

As the adult, it's my job to move us forward through the transition, into what's next. Otherwise, I subject myself to the tyranny of the tantrum. That means I allow the two-year-old to dictate what the rest of the family will do, just because he kicked and screamed and carried on.

That's what the town halls have devolved into -- the tyranny of the tantrum. The behavior we're seeing is basically the extreme of the Republican base kicking and screaming because they believe that if they throw a big enough tantrum, they can hold off change, turn back the transition period already begun, and keep things the way they are -- or go back to the way they were.

What's needed right now are more adults who are not so intimidated or stunned by the tantrum that they attempt to placate the tantrum-throwers by trying to keep thing basically the way they are. What we need are grown-ups who know how to move forward through, and in spite of, the tantrum.

I call it the "football carry." It's when we pick up the tantruming toddler under one arm -- in such a way that he doesn't hurt himself or anyone else -- and carry him forward with us. It doesn't mean the tantrum ends right away. It means that we know it will end, because it always does, but we don't wait for it to end before moving on.

That's necessary because, as any parent knows, sometimes there's just no reasoning with a tantruming toddler. We can, lovingly, explain that we understand their frustration, but we have to move on. And that's about it. We know what the tantrum thrower doesn't know or care to know that the present circumstances are unsustainable. We can no more stay at the playground forever than we can afford a health care system that keeps costing more while helping fewer and fewer people, or pretend that we can continue moving toward a two-track economy, where one track prospers at the expense of the other.

Neither can we turn back the clock (nor should we) to a time when the president and most of the Supreme Court (to name two seats of power), were guaranteed to be white -- something many townhall screamers, birthers, and McCain/Palin rally attendees would like to return to, whether they say as much or not.

Now, people who don't know that Medicare is a government program probably aren't reacting to what President Obama is actually proposing. They may believe some of the disinformation opponents of health care reform are spreading, like the claim that the Obama plan will lead to euthanasia for the elderly. (That particular claim is coming straight from House Republican leaders.) But they're probably reacting less to what Mr. Obama is doing, or even to what they've heard about what he's doing, than to who he is.

That is, the driving force behind the town hall mobs is probably the same cultural and racial anxiety that's behind the "birther" movement, which denies Mr. Obama's citizenship. Senator Dick Durbin has suggested that the birthers and the health care protesters are one and the same; we don't know how many of the protesters are birthers, but it wouldn't be surprising if it's a substantial fraction.

And cynical political operators are exploiting that anxiety to further the economic interests of their backers.


Does this sound familiar? It should: it's a strategy that has played a central role in American politics ever since Richard Nixon realized that he could advance Republican fortunes by appealing to the racial fears of working-class whites.

So, we move forward, through the tantrum, and carry tantrum-thrower with us.

Eventually, the two-year-old will adjust to whatever we do and wherever we go next. The kicking and screaming will stop, if only because it's tiring and futile, and perhaps because even a two-year-old eventually realizes that the future he was carried into while kicking and screaming all the way isn't all that bad. In fact, he might even find something to like about it.

Until the next transition. Then, we have to be the grow-ups again.

The health-care "debate" in town halls across the country desperately needs more grown-ups to carry us forward, to the change that we need.

The other option is submitting to the tyranny of the tantrum.

[Images via hyperscholar and bobster855 @ Flickr.]

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