It wasn’t one of my finest parenting moments, telling off my child’s teacher, but I couldn’t help it.
There we were, in the middle of her preschool gymnastics class, when my daughter started to melt down. It wasn’t a huge deal. The group had been bouncing balls on the mats when my child noticed someone else had the red ball and wouldn’t give it up. We waited for our turn, but that turn never came. It was time to put the balls away. No exceptions.
Sorry, sweetie. I know you’re disappointed, but we’re all done with the balls. It’s time to do something else now.
But that wasn’t okay with her. And I was okay with it not being okay. It’s all right to be upset, but this time, you can’t get your way.
My three-year-old started to cry, that kind of cry that asks Is this negotiable? But when the balls actually disappeared into the back room, far away and out of sight, she lost it. Her screaming grew louder, and she stomped her feet.
While the other kids enjoyed a stream of bubbles floating through the air, I retreated to the lobby, awkwardly carrying my flailing child. I plopped her in a chair, knelt beside her and explained again. Maybe you can ask for the red ball next week, but right now we’re done with the balls and the other kids are doing bubbles. Would you like to go back in and do bubbles with them?
But she needed her time. She wasn’t ready. So I stood next to her chair, waiting for the storm to pass. I smiled at the other moms and dads in the lobby, with a What can you do? shrug.
Eventually, my daughter started to calm down. She whined, not screamed, and I reminded her about the bubbles. We don’t want to miss our turn with the bubbles! She agreed. But the moment we returned to the gym, my her brain went back to the ball. Why couldn’t she have her turn?
I realized I was running out of strategies. My explanations had failed. Stepping out was only a Band-Aid. Distraction was futile.
I didn’t want to leave. She didn’t want to leave. She could be having fun. I could be getting my money’s worth out of this $25 class. So I waited and watched. My daughter stood close to me, crying about the red ball in a room full of noise and laughter while the other three-year-olds tumbled and cartwheeled.
That was when her teacher approached. “You know what would really help is if you gave her some space.”
Really? I thought. Are you really going to tell me how to handle my own child’s tantrum?
“Yeah, we’ve already tried stepping out into the lobby, but as soon as we came back, she started crying again about wanting to have a turn with the red ball.”
“Why don’t you move away so you’re not rewarding her while she’s upset?”
That was it: the moment this very nice, well-informed teacher tried to explain my own child’s psychology to me.
“I have a master’s degree in education and this isn’t my first child, so I completely understand what’s driving her behavior. And it’s not that I’m standing next to her. She wants the turn she waited for. My standing on the other side of the room isn’t going to help her stop.”
I didn’t mean to snap, or sound resentful or defensive. But twenty minutes into this tantrum, in a week of daily tantrums managed at home using the extinction technique she described, I didn’t need anyone—anyone—telling me what would work. It felt so judgmental and so belittling when my nerves were already frayed.
The teacher moved away, spotting kids at the high beam and calling my daughter over for the next turn, a turn she never took. That day’s class was spoiled for her, and we both left feeling frustrated.
What that teacher had intended as a helpful suggestion made me realize how little we can and should do when other people’s kids lose it. We can’t make it stop, and suggesting they could stop the screaming if they’d just do this particular thing makes them feel like a moron.
So the next time you’re tempted to offer advice in the middle of someone else’s kid’s tantrum, think again. Instead, give that parent your very best I’ve so been there! smile … and then walk away.
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