‘What a brat!’ Considering toddler tirades, gracious parenting
By the Rev. Dr. Cassandra Williams
Have you ever watched a mother struggle with a screaming child and thought, “What a brat! She needs to learn to control that child”? Have you ever dragged your own flailing toddler from the store, red-faced with embarrassment?
When actor Justin Baldoni posted on Facebook an image of his daughter having a “tantrum,” the photo went viral. Baldoni was quoted as saying that his own dad had always let him feel what he needed to feel, “even if it was in public and embarrassing.” Indeed, the post shows a calm Baldoni protectively straddling his daughter as she lay on the grocery store floor. Baldoni and his dad watch over her with bemused looks on their faces.
Baldoni later posted a similar photo with his wife calmly waiting while their daughter processed her frustrations on a city sidewalk. In both instances, the caregivers created a safe space in which the child could express her emotions in fairly typical toddler fashion. These posts received thousands of comments that ranged from hailing Baldoni as a potential “Father of the Year” to admonishing him for teaching his child to selfishly get her way. One comment, typical of “constructive criticism” read, in part: “She can feel that way all she wants, just not in public. At some point children need to learn how to respect other people and that other people don’t need to be exposed to our petty whims.”
I agree 100 percent. I can’t imagine anyone would argue against the claim that at some point children need to learn how to respect other people and that the world doesn’t revolve around their whims. The question is however: How and when do children learn to respect other people?
Children learn respect by experiencing respect, and that includes adults honoring their intrinsic developmental process. Age-appropriate behavior is appropriate behavior even when it isn’t easy for caregivers. Toddlers have only recently figured out that there are other people in the world and that they are actual separate beings. They are experiencing so many new things, including emotions — big emotions — but don’t yet have the skills to regulate themselves or the language to express those emotions.
They have new powers that they are learning to use, like walking, exploring and setting boundaries. They naturally yearn for freedom while facing a world of intriguing — and often dangerous — things. They hear “no” as often as they say “no.” Their budding language skills are insufficient to communicate their needs, thoughts and feelings. Because experiences can be overwhelming and frustrating, toddlers express themselves through the only means they have: their bodies, their voices and their tears. These behaviors are normal, age-appropriate responses. This is not a brat. This is a child being a child. As toddlers’ brains and bodies grow, the time will come to learn about the needs of others and various ways of expressing emotions.
Raising children is not an easy task. It is demanding, time-consuming and can be frustrating. It is also a choice and a blessing. When we welcome a child into our lives — whether as a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, teacher or other care-provider — we are essentially consenting to be the bigger person, to attend to the needs of this small creature who is unable to make it on his or her own. It is helpful to remember that it isn’t about us. If we are embarrassed by a screaming toddler, that’s our problem. What others think is their problem.
If the twos are terrible for us, we need to consider how difficult they are for the 2-year-old who is just beginning to learn what it means to be alive in this complex world. If toddler resistance feels insulting, we need to remember that they are not defying us. In fact, they are not doing anything to us. They are experimenting with personal agency — a critical skill for healthy adulthood and personal faith. When we set boundaries to create safe spaces for their protection, they won’t appreciate our efforts, but it remains our responsibility to create those safe spaces rather than shifting the onus to them through unrealistic expectations.
When we punish children for childish behavior, we derail important developmental processes, which can have lifelong effects. Decades ago, I had a congregant tell me she’d been asked to babysit an 18-month-old whose parents advised her not to be afraid to spank him. She wondered if it was appropriate to spank a child so young. Pushing through my shock, I explained the detrimental and damaging nature of the parents’ approach.
She later reported that the child was such a “good baby,” never even touching the knickknacks on her shelves. I felt sick, and the conversation haunts me still. Yes, the parents’ approach “worked,” if their goal was to keep their baby from doing the things a baby naturally does as part of his or her development. This was not a “good” baby. This was a baby who had learned it wasn’t okay to be a baby. This was a child whose intrinsic developmental process was thwarted by presumably well-meaning parents. Exploring, handling things, putting things in their mouths — these are the ways young children get to know their world. These activities are also critical for brain and motor development.
Sadly, Christianity has a long history of promoting austere child-rearing practices designed to control behavior and teach unquestioning obedience. Such objectives, often sought through punishment, lay a foundation for a limited sense of personal agency and self-confidence in adulthood. They also engender an inability to embrace grace. Persons raised in demanding and punitive households readily understand a demanding and punitive God, but the God we claim in Christ is a God of grace.
The goal of Christian parenting is to nurture humans who are able to receive grace and act with boldness — qualities that are nurtured in households (and churches) that create safe spaces for learning and growing in accordance with developmental needs and abilities. And sometimes that means straddling a screaming toddler in the middle of a grocery store.
American Baptist Home Mission Societies, where the Rev. Cassandra Carkuff Williams, Ed.D., serves as director of Discipleship Ministries, invites you to download “Gracious Parenting,” one of its newest Workshops for Church Life and Leadership. “Gracious Parenting” will be available, beginning in October 2017.
Links to other helpful parenting articles:
“Shaming Children Is Emotionally Abusive: Children Respect those Who Respect Them”
The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.