When Jack Swigert said, “Houston, we have a problem!” it was concerning the Apollo 13 moon landing, and it was because he saw a major issue on the horizon. I say it for the same reason. In my case, though, it means alerting readers to some really bad parenting advice out there that, more than likely, will cause parents following it to be totally confused as to why their children are behaving so horribly. Sure, bad parenting advice means I’m busier, but I can’t fail to notice how much worse it is for the poor moms and dads, and ultimately, the kids who are the target of this poor advice.
A classic example this week was a recent online article on MomJunction. MomJunction has some excellent articles and is filled with good information about child health and development. However, this article is behavioural-based, where things can get a little more sticky, and was written by someone who doesn’t seem to have much of a background in child behaviour. But having said that, there are lots of people out there with no background in child behaviour that have more sensible advice, so let’s be fair and let’s start by focusing on what the author got right.
The big win in this article was the fact that you should pay attention to positive behaviour. Yes, that’s a good idea, but it was what to do when your child threatened to or was having a tantrum where, in my view, the author totally lost the plot. However, she did ably explain that one- and two-year-olds often tantrum because they can’t communicate effectively and they get frustrated, but then she goes on to say it’s perfectly normal for kids to tantrum well into the threes, fours, and fives. I’m here to tell you that’s not normal, not at all, and if your child is still throwing significant hissy fits more than just occasionally, it’s something you want to address. Something is missing in your parenting approach that would be an excellent idea to remedy, preferably now and hopefully while they’re still little.
Bad Parenting Advice: Houston we have a problem!
I realize that people write articles to help, and they sincerely hope that their advice turns out to be useful. Unfortunately, it often doesn’t work out that way, and it often makes it so much harder for parents to figure out that there is a problem that needs to be addressed. As a result, they don’t look for help until their child is often nine or ten, when positive change becomes so much harder.
But let’s listen to her advice. Firstly, she suggests that if a temper tantrum is happening, mom or dad can, during said temper tantrum, decide to take their little one away from the scene and sit down with them or let them walk beside you until they calm down.
Ok, fair enough. Let’s first talk through the process of removal. Most kids won’t just walk beside you to calm down if they’re in the midst of having a tantrum. Irrespective, it’s important to understand that their behaviour did not just mean that, as a parent or caregiver, you were forced to remove them from the scene, but also that their behaviour has removed YOU from the scene and prevented you from fulfilling whatever task you needed to fulfill.
Bad Parenting Advice: Houston we have a problem!
Now why is understanding this important? Well, those of you who know me or have worked with me know that I go on about the importance of leadership. Leadership means your children watch, mimic, and otherwise follow what you do. If you lead well, they’re happy little clams. If you, however, put the leadership position in their hands by allowing them to dictate where and how things happen, that dynamic changes very quickly.
Taking them out of the public spotlight is a decision that you may have to make when they’re having a tantrum, but it’s all in how you react when you remove them, and it’s important to understand the foundational principle here. Since they removed YOU from the scene, you must counteract the impression that their behaviour forced you to change what you’re doing.
Luckily, kids brains aren’t developed yet, so you can make any removal seem like part of your day. Perhaps you have to check the tire pressure on your car or check where it’s parked. Perhaps you’ve forgotten your jacket. In that way, you can take them to the car, let them calm down, and stay busy and not bothered by their behaviour.
What you don’t want to compound is to make it obvious that everything has stopped for them. That means don’t sit with them, hold them, or otherwise pay attention to the tantrum. If you do, you are inadvertently giving them positive feedback for engaging in that behaviour. Empathy for what created the meltdown is important, but only when things are back to normal and the resulting discussion about how the world works and how people might feel about that cannot be directly associated with the tantrum, perhaps later in the day when you are doing something together or having a cuddle.
Remember, there are feelings that are worthy of being acknowledged and feelings that aren’t, and I don’t subscribe to the idea that it’s important to validate all your child’s feelings. All feelings and the behaviours that stem from them are not created equal, and this is an area where parents frequently get into trouble. If your child has had their leg caught in the shopping cart mechanism and it got pinched, of course that’s a feeling that we can both acknowledge and empathize with. Screaming for a chocolate bar, conversely, is not a feeling worth acknowledging. If you acknowledge and empathize with their ‘need or desire for a chocolate bar’, you are adding weight to that feeling. You are giving it credence, and you are making sure your child will focus their attention more, not less, on that very feeling. Instead of being a passing thought, you have made their desire and how you deal with it into a big deal.
I wrote about this phenomena in a previous article, called “Why gentle parenting often results in a train wreck.” Here’s a quote.
Feelings are really just the body’s manifestation of what we’re thinking. In other words, feelings are thoughts. The average human brain processes some 70,000 thoughts a day, and the large majority of those thoughts are unconscious, so we’re aware of only a fraction of them. These thoughts are usually fairly transitory, but it’s easy for us to get stuck on one, and that’s when they start to manifest in our body and make us uncomfortable, happy, sad, or whatever. Have you ever noticed that if you concentrate on a thought, it tends to get bigger? Let’s say you’re anxious about something. Say you have to give a speech. You’re worried about the speech; you fret for days before. Your throat becomes dry every time you think about it, and you feel sick. Your thoughts are manifesting in your body as feelings.
Bad Parenting Advice: Houston we have a problem!
But the advice given in this article unfortunately gets worse. Here’s a quote.
“If all else fails, distract! If your little one has already started to have an outburst, you can keep a bag full of goodies that may act as the potential solution to your problem. This trick works especially well if you’re in a public place. Say for example, you’re at the mall and your child throws a tantrum because they can’t get their hands on all the candy they see. Simply pull out the fun bag and hand them their favorite toy, book or snack in case they are hungry. A good way to stop a tantrum is to redirect your child’s attention and engage them in an alternative activity.”
Yes, Houston, we have a problem! So I think you can safely conclude that I think this is bad parenting advice. According to this article, it looks like we are going to bribe them to be quiet now. They want something from the shelf, and instead of saying no, we can avoid all that unpleasantness and those tantrums and just give them something from our special bag. Tell me, where is the incentive here for the child to behave in the shop and not grab something? Redirecting is an issue in all but the most limited of circumstances, and redirecting with a reward—well, that’s even worse.
How does it help your child to learn that there is a reward for behaving badly or that people are going to be understanding and compassionate and provide them with something pleasant when they behave like an entitled idiot? You may be thinking, but they’re three or four, and they’ll learn later, but that would be somewhat of a troublesome conclusion to come to. They absorb lessons when they are little, and they don’t suddenly magically become reasonable all by themselves as a consequence of age. No, rather, their behaviour will get worse, and they will finally find out when they are much older that the world doesn’t respond in this way and doesn’t distract and mollify them when they run into a problem.
Advice online can be contradictory and confusing. I know that, and it’s why it’s so easy for so many well-meaning and caring parents to lose their way. Having said that, what you will get if you follow such advice is that your child will have more tantrums, not fewer, because you have provided a wonderful incentive to ensure that. It also gives the child the impression that they can expect that life will continue to revolve around them as they grow and that people have an obligation to keep them happy. In essence, you reinforce the idea that they and their desires are the centre of the universe.
I know that most parents are just trying to do their best, and it’s hard not to take on board all the varying opinions out there. However, when it comes to trying to figure out good parenting advice versus bad parenting advice, keep in mind that children, as with any human being, respond in the same time-honoured tradition as people that are grown, which is to say, show me the incentive and I’ll show you the outcome.
If you’re interested in seeking a behaviour intervention with Annie, please see her behaviour intervention information.
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