Ask Gary: Can I Make the Public Freakouts Stop?

Fatherly’s resident parenting expert on how to deal with a grocery store tantrum and betting on babies.

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“Ask Gary” is Fatherly’s weekly advice column, written by father of three, ex-middle school science teacher, and parenting expert — if that’s a thing — Gary Bamburger. Need hard-won insights and scientific facts to resolve a parenting dilemma or family dispute? Email AskGary@fatherly.com. Need justifications for parenting decisions you’ve already made? Ask someone else. Gary ain’t got the time.

Hey Gary,

My wife and I have been puzzling over a question for a while now: What are we supposed to do about public tantrums?! Every time we get to the checkout lane in the grocery store, my daughter asks me to buy her convenience candy or some other piece of junk. When I say no, she throws a humiliating tantrum. It never fails to ruin both of our afternoons. Why does she do this, and how can I make it stop?

Jake
Idaho Falls, Idaho

There are some creative answers out there to the tantrum problem. You heard the one about the lady who farts to end her kid’s meltdowns? That works, but probably isn’t ideal for the express aisle at Kroger (if you shop at Whole Foods it’s sort of expected, given all the roughage). The takeaway isn’t that flatulence is the solution, but that there are a lot of solutions and it pays to be creative.

Scientists who study tantrums have found that kids are pre-programmed to throw them. Studies show that basically every tantrum, even your daughter’s, follows more or less the same progression. Tantrums start with an explosion of anger (how DARE you not buy me a peanut butter cup), which tapers off and resolves into a wave of sadness (collapsing on the floor in tears). Experts think the sadness may be an evolutionary scheme—a sympathetic behavior to make you like your daughter again after she humiliated you in front of the cashier. Manipulative, sure. But also comforting. That crying near the end of a tantrum is an invitation for you to support your daughter and her own odd way of saying that she’s sorry that she flipped the shopping cart.

Unfortunately, tantrums are far easier to explain than they are to prevent—especially when they seem to happen for no reason. Luckily for you, Jake, you know exactly what’s setting your kid off. That gives you your first tactic: preparation. Take time to prime your kid in the checkout lane before you get there. Remind her what will go down. You can even role-play appropriate ways to deal with the disappointment (a skill worth learning if you’re the kind of kid who cries when she can’t have a Red’s jersey). Alan Kazdin of the Yale Parenting Lab champions the simulation technique. He’d probably advise that your daughter rehearse scowling instead of screaming.

But we all know that Kazdin is crazy if he thinks preparing a kid for disappointment can forestall every checkout line meltdown. So when the inevitable moment comes, don’t panic. Instead, use psychology. Behavioral experts have identified two kinds of tantrums: demands for attention (hold me; buy me that gum I’ll probably just swallow) and escape from attention (I don’t want to put on my coat). The solution to each type of tantrum is to not give your child what she wants.

In the checkout line, your daughter is throwing a textbook “demand for attention” tantrum. So ignore her with extreme prejudice. Stay calm. Pay for your goods. Go about the day. Don’t yell, and certainly don’t focus on her. Even negative attention counts as attention, and attention is not what you want to give her. Your daughter needs to learn that tantrums are an ineffective negotiating tactic. And if she doesn’t give you the old what-for and she behaves properly, make sure she knows you noticed. Lots of hugs and kisses are in order.

Also, don’t worry about the folks in line giving you the side-eye. You do you. What’s happening is just a blip in their day, but it’s your reality. Remember that tantrums are a normal part of your child’s brain development and that they will pass. And if all else fails? Let one rip.

***

Gary,

I have a lot of dad friends with babies the same age as my son, Luke. We had a get-together the other day, and all the other babies were crawling already. Luke isn’t crawling yet and really doesn’t seem like he’s going to any time soon. Should I be worried about this?

Phillip
Grants Pass, Oregon

I’m a super competitive guy, Phil. I, too, have my dad pals and we are not beyond making play date side-bets over which baby will be the first to knock over another baby. I’m happy to report that my little girl, Lilly, has won me a couple of beers. That said, human development isn’t a competition or a race. Hitting major milestones, including crawling, isn’t as big a deal as a lot of publications suggest.

Also, crawling is not really a developmental milestone.Outside of the Western world, children frequently go straight from being carried by their parents to walking (albeit with an awkward scooting phase somewhere in the middle). Anthropologists think crawling may be a relatively new phenomenon, barely as old as hardwood floors and modern medicine. After all, without hardwood floors or carpeting, crawling is basically just trawling for pathogens.

Still, it’s always concerning when your kid is an outlier in what seems like a bad way. If your read this and remain concerned, bring it up at your next doctor’s visit. If they’ve been reading the literature, they’ll likely cough up research from the NYU Infant Action Lab (best lab name ever, right?) suggesting that you make sure Luke gets enough tummy time and, once he’s strong enough to get his belly off the ground, tempt him to move with a snack or toy.

Word of warning: Luke may have his own unique style of locomotion. It might not look like a classic crawl. In fact it might be ugly and awkward as hell. But if it gets him where he’s going, count it as a victory. Luke might wind up giggling as he sloppily drags his face across the ground. As long as he’s happy, he’s fine. Crawling, as you may have noticed, is not a critical life skill.

***

Hey Gary!

Love your column. I was wondering…is stepfathering supposed to be this hard? I married my lovely wife six months ago, and she has two great kids, but they don’t seem to like me much. When I discipline them they don’t take me seriously, and when I try to be a friend they push me away. Does this ever end? What can I do to make things better at home?

Tom
Dayton, Ohio

That’s a tough one, Tom. I bet being a stepdad can feel sort of like being a Cleveland Browns quarterback. You know, even when you’re playing home games, you don’t feel at home. But if you’ve only been married for six months, the key thing is to wait. James Bray, a scientist who dedicated his career to studying stepfamilies, says that most stepfathers aren’t ready to start parenting properly—and certainly not ready to start disciplining stepchildren—for at least two years. During those first two years, Bray says it’s better to just try to be a friend. And, if you really feel the need to parent, do it on the sly. Know where your stepkids are and who they’re hanging out with, and report those details to your wife. But until those kids are ready to accept you, disciplining them won’t do any good and will probably do some harm. In your case, it might be because you tried disciplining them too soon that they’re not even willing to try to be friends with you. There’s an easy fix, though. Relax. Be their friend, and don’t try to be their parent.

They’ll accept you eventually. Until then, embrace your inner underdog and show lots of love.

 

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