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Public Tantrums

Public Tantrums


Dear Rachel,

I am having an incredibly hard time with my preschooler and I am starting to think I have the worst-behaved child in the world. Yesterday I had a doctor's appointment and then had to go to the grocery store. Granted, it was a long and hot day, but while at the store, he wanted a candy and I told him he couldn't have it. He hadn't eaten lunch yet and I didn't want him having sugar. He started screaming so loudly that people began staring. I couldn't get him to quiet down and I didn't want to give him the candy after I told him "no." The entire time we stayed in the store he screamed and it was the worst experience. What is wrong with my child?

Aggravated Mom

Dear Aggravated Mom,

There is no question that the preschool age is a challenging one. Children at this age are old enough to have a basic understanding of right and wrong, and usually too young to be able to rationalize with. Yet, in the case you describe above, your child doesn't seem to be the real problem. And I don't think there is anything wrong with your child. Even more so, I think you will find, if looking at the situation through a different lens, much of this could have been avoided.

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement, taught that when something bothers us in another person, we are usually looking in the mirror. When it comes to parenting, this is especially true. Often we get upset or angry with our children for something they did, but is often a result of a situation we put them in. And when a child is having a fit, it is easier to think that something might be wrong with the child than to figure out what is wrong with how I am parenting right now.

Let's go through your day and see how things could have been done differently. You write that you had an appointment. I am not sure if your child needed to go with you or if he could have stayed with a babysitter, but if it is not an appointment for him, you may want to consider not bringing him.

Who likes an appointment? There is waiting for the doctor, then the appointment itself - not exactly a fun-filled activity for a kid. Necessary perhaps, but not fun. But being that you did bring him with you, your outing should have ended there. Bringing him on an errand, on a hot and long day, really wasn't fair to him.

Most likely he was also hot, tired and would have preferred an air-conditioned room to play in, than to be strapped into a grocery cart. And then, once he was, he was denied the very treat he wanted. Now, generally speaking, I do agree with you that a treat before lunch is not a great idea. However, in this case, an exception might have been made.

Perhaps he was hungry. You can't take a hungry child to the store and then expect him to behave. Had he eaten first, I imagine he would have been more manageable and might not have thrown a tantrum in the store. I am assuming that it was more convenient for you to stop at the store on the way home, but if that was the case, then a treat would have been a good reward for being schlepped around.

Now once he had his tantrum, it was clear you weren't going to get him to stop on his own. At that point, you again had a choice. You could have given in and handed him a treat, along with an explanation that you were making an exception and that treats are usually only for after the meal. Or, if you did not want to go back on your word, then you needed to leave the store right then and there.

A tantrum is a child saying, or more appropriately screaming, "Give me attention!" He was trying to get his point across that he wasn't happy and by keeping him in the store, you were indicating that his feelings didn't matter that much to you. It seems that the store just pushed him over the edge, for after all, he was: 1. tired, 2. hungry, 3. just at an appointment. Granted, leaving the store early would have meant not finishing all your shopping, but it would have saved your child and yourself (not to mention the other customers) a lot of aggravation. His screaming should have been followed by a dart to the shortest checkout line and a straight drive home.

To avoid this situation in the future, when you plan your day, ask yourself a few key questions:

  1. Does my child need to come with me wherever I am going? If not, consider having someone watch him while you go out.
  2. Will my errands cause him to miss a nap or meal? If so, make sure to bring food and a stroller for him to eat and nap while you are out.
  3. What, during my errands, will be something that my child will enjoy? Make sure to schedule in time for a quick stop at a playground or the toy store or even a cold drink or Slurpy on a hot day.
  4. Can my errands be lessened or pushed off for a better time? Three stores you need may be right next to one another, but a happy child will save you much more time than it will take to go back another day to the other stores.

I think you will find that with a little better planning, you will have a much more agreeable child. And there is no question that a happier child will result in a happier mother! Best wishes for easier grocery store experiences in the future!


"Dear Rachel" is a bi-weekly column that is answered by a rotating group of experts. This question was answered by Sara Esther Crispe.

Sara Esther Crispe, a writer, inspirational speaker and mother of four, is the Co-Director of Interinclusion, a non-profit multi-layered educational initiative celebrating the convergence between contemporary arts and sciences and timeless Jewish wisdom. Prior to that she was the editor of and wrote the popular weekly blog, Musing for Meaning. To book Sara Esther for a speaking engagement, please click here.
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Anonymous February 21, 2009

Grocery stores In particular can be a difficult place and especially if a child is hungry. Taking a non sugary snack when you leave the house is always a good idea with young children. We always had nuts, cheerios, dried fruit and that sort of thing with us.

We do have a grandson with Asperger's syndrome however who is not a toddler anymore...but it still seems rather hard on him to go into a store...just way too overstimulating. If you cannot help your child with other measures, check into whether he may have this problem. There are good intervention therapies available these days to help the child better prepare for life. Our grandson has come a long ways. By the way, these children are usually of higher than normal intelligence. Reply

Lee June 18, 2008

"He was trying to get his point across that he wasn't happy and by keeping him in the store, you were indicating that his feelings didn't matter that much to you" Duh? A child's feelings DO matter but they shouldn't dictate the child's schedule. A child should follow the adult's wishes in most cases, not the other way around. If he was hungry then maybe they could have packed a snack for him to eat in between the dr and the grocery. But, no I wouldn't bend my eating rules or rearrange my schedule (if it made the most sense - grocery is on the way home from the dr, etc..) for any of my 3 kids. Yes, I do leave them with someone when I go out IF POSSIBLE but that isn't always possible and for some unlucky people it is never possible. You don't seriously expect those people to just never get out do you? Bending yourself to your child's whims is a bad idea - they are in for a serious disappointment when they grow up and no one else will drop everything for them /give them whatever they want Reply

Anonymous December 12, 2007

public tantrums I recently had to care for a child (8 years old) whose mother planned her day around the kid. She made sure there were fun activities and snacks all day. This works great in moderation, but this 8 year old was so used to snacks all day and her fun activities that she was unable to follow directions at home or school. She did poorly in school because she couldn't perform the required tasks without her "games." As the kids get older, they need to learn that the world does not revolve around them, that other people have feelings that matter, and that sometimes they have to do things that they may not feel like doing. One thing I have done in the past is let the kids know before leaving what we will be doing and that if they behave while we are out, they will get a treat when we get done. If they do not behave, they are told specifically why they did not get the treat. It was difficult to start, but they eventually got it. Reply

Traci November 24, 2007

Wonderful ideas! I really like these ideas. I started paying for our church "Mothers morning out" program. My 2 year old loves the social interaction of the children and I get everything done that I can in the 3 hours she is there. Thanks for the games ideas above, I'll try that too! Reply

sarah armed forces, okinawa, japan October 12, 2007

re-public tantrums Him staying home with my spouse isn't an option right now- he's deployed. Appreciate the game idea, though, we'll definitely use that! Thank you! Reply

Laura Mushkat schenctady, new york October 12, 2007

re-public tantrums You have a big problem-you have a kid! I know they act up as preschoolers but what do you want from the little one? What are you going to do when he acts up as a teen-you will look back on this as the good ol days! Seriously every mom and dad knows what it is like to try and shop with the ___ aged child. They do different things at various times to make you feel horrid and embarrassed. It is kind of their job. Maybe G-d did this to make adults feel superior.

This worked for me at various stages:
Something nutricous you can have in your pocketbook for the child to nibble on when they are hungry. Something to drink also.

Ask the child to help. It is something safe for them to hold or be in charge of and if possible-if very very good-they get to help put the same type of thing on the counter for the clerk.

Games are good-help mommy find the green can, the yellow bannanas, etc. These can work with more then 1 child. Try having him home with your spouse.


Sarah Armed Forces, Okinawa, Japan October 1, 2007

public Tantrums I cannot tell you how much the advice here has helped me! I am a stay-at-home mom who frequently has the need to go on errands and drag my almost two year old along. He throws tantrums all the time and without realizing it, I treat it as a personal insult. I have had my share of mistakes dealing with the behavior and hated myself for acting that way- and didn't change the cause. Silly as it seems, I never thought about it from his point of view, hot, tired, bored, etc. Thank you so much! I wrote down the four questions to ask myself when planning the day. Thank you, I can't say it enough. I feel so silly not thinking of them on my own! I think alot of parents (myself included) tend to think of their children as little adults and forget that they are still small and incapable sometimes of dealing with a schedule change. I may not have anyone to watch him, but I can be more mindful of his schedule and be prepared w/ snacks and drinks and stroller and not make extra stops. Reply

Angela September 8, 2007

Should not condemn each other, but love each other I did not mean to speak harshing about this mother, who did this to her child (from my previous statment), and hope if I have upset anyone, to forgive me for doing so. People just need to hear the truth about their mistakes, to be aware of them. I am going to word this one in a gentle way. Its sad to see, but I believe its best that we, as parents, encourage others to do what is good for the child by saying it in a understanding way, rather than badly judge the parent's mistake and see them as bad parents. I see parents do bad things to a child or children, but I come to realize that NO ONE is perfect. We all have our bad moments, especially during times of stress. Think about it. Are you always perfect, with the way you do things with your own child? NO, right? NO ONE here on earth is always perfect. We must realize this truth: We all will tend to make mistakes. The best way for us deal with this, is to help each other by encouraging others to do good, & not condemn others for doing bad Reply

Lisa Providence, RI September 8, 2007

Public Tantrums ALL children throw tantrums in public sometimes, but my own mother slapped me in the face right in front of everyone and I hated it!

Very often, parents have selfish attitudes and unrealistic expectations when it comes to raising children. Some parents won't listen to their children and/or think their children are "stupid and just plain don't care".

"No snacks between meals" is especially difficult during the summer, and this mother should have provided her child with water to drink - it's the best "snack" and can fill you up until the next bathroom break!


Anonymous August 26, 2007

Childhood tantrums An excellent answer.

It's worth noting that the "no snacks in between meals" rule is problematic under the best of circumstances. In cases like this, it borders on abusive. Everyone needs to eat on a regular basis, but adults can (when in reasonable health) run on reserves longer than usual, although even they are likely to be tired and find their mood and coping ability negatively affected. Children do NOT have that level of reserve capacity! Think about the fact that young children are not ALLOWED to fast; there is a good reason for that.

The first thing this mother should have done when she got into the store is to get the child a drink and some sort of snack. At least it would have alleviated the thirst - probably beginning dehydration - and taken the edge of his hunger. That would not have taken care of the hot, tired and bored out of his mind, but it would have made it easier to deal with, and made a melt-down less likely to happen.

At that point, a request for candy still should have not been dealt with with a flat "NO". Some sort of compromise - maybe offering to allow the child to choose a treat (yes, even with sugar, it won't kill her) to have AFTER lunch would have worked, and given the child something to anticipate.

But, bottom line, you are right that it's much better to avoid such situations in the first place. One needs to be realistic about the schedules of children that age.

Angela August 25, 2007

Those who love their children, will be receptive to the needs of others, by caring about their needs. As a parent (mother), we mothers should not belittle our children, when it comes to their tanturms, but to love them, unselfishly . .by give and take, with our time and attention. Too many parents spend too much time doing the things they want to do, rather than being considerate of their own children's needs.

The article I read, is a lack of love . .thus, common sense. If you love your child, you would not be quick to judge, by critizing that something is wrong with the child, but be understanding about it, thru love. It is G-d's love, that will help a person understand the needs of other people, especially children, who are still struggling to communicate themselves to adults. In this world, today, far too many parents are selfish with their time, and need to stop, and enjoy the simple things in life with their children, not making it like business in the working world. Reply

Linna Bowman Tulsa, USA August 15, 2007

child tantrum I had the same problem with my daughter however as she got older I realized it was her eyes she was unable to distinguish patterns and colors .. as she got older it became more evident ...this only happened in the store or where there was a lot of patterns Reply

Amy Sandusky CA August 15, 2007

Please remember that a good percentage of the people looking at you and your child are not looking in disapproval; they're remembering their own child doing something similar at some point. Every child has melted down at some point! Try getting down on his level and telling him that you know it's really hard for him to be patient, but that if he can manage just a little bit longer (and then hurry!) you'll play with him, or whatever you would treat him with later. Reply

Anonymous August 15, 2007

on being a good mother...... OMG Rachel!!! Where were you when I was growing up...:) It is centuries ago but still I wish someone would have talked to my mother about child raising and that she would have listened in the first place...... Reply

Anonymous August 13, 2007

This is excellent advice, and is proven with parenting experience. When it comes to raising children, the Jewish adage that Goshmius(material) is Ruchnius (spiritual) certainly applies! Reply