The Zen of Temper Tantrums: Finding serenity in chaos

01.05.11: Leo's 32nd Month

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This week I took a new job with a non-profit dedicated to bringing healthy food into schools (stay tuned for more details…). Right after accepting the job, I went to pick Leo up at school. His teachers met me with the news that Leo had had a hard day and had been hitting and biting. My first thoughts: he needs therapy! He needs more from me! This is the wrong time to take a job advocating for better school food for other people’s kids. I’ll be ignoring my own! Then I reminded myself that Leo is normal and that I am not some super hero who can fix everything in his life. I’m just his mom. Plus, it’s a part-time position. And more importantly, I only have a few years to dramatically improve the school food in this entire country before he enters kindergarten. I better get busy!

I am ready to lose the tendency to judge my parenting based on Leo’s behavior. I see now that this is egotistical, for one, and more importantly, that focusing on behavior creates unrealistic expectations. In fact, I don’t want Leo to “be good.” Sure, it would be great when we’re on line in the supermarket, and of course we can’t let him hurt other people and we get pretty steamed when he draws all over the wall (sigh. see photo below). But having a well-behaved toddler all the time is not the point, and believing that a toddler’s behavior reflects on your merit as a parent is a self-absorbed distraction from the issues your kid is struggling with. Not to mention a controlling attitude that is likely to inspire even greater contrariness in a child.

We’re pretty alike, my boy and me: Super stubborn, easily frustrated and ambitious, with perfectionist tendencies. Leo wants to be in charge. So do I. To add insult to injury, he’s small and has limited practical skills. He registers his dismay loudly and frequently, tests us endlessly and creates a great deal of hubbub in the process. So I’ve created a tea in his honor: Constant Chaos. And I’m working hard to let go of the sense of complete responsibility that I’ve felt the need to shoulder since Leo’s birth.

An article I read recently hypothesizes that tantrums are not worth avoiding (with thanks to my friend Lauren for sending me the link). The author compares them to a sneeze: a violent and necessary fit that clears out irritations. By adopting this viewpoint for the past couple days, I have been less anxious to distract and placate Leo to keep him from melting down. If he challenges me, I am more confident that holding my ground is simply realistic—for both of us. He has every right to protest the realities of life, but I can’t actually fix everything for him, and apologizing or trying to deny this does us no good. When Leo flies off his handle I’m present and kind, but firm. This usually means I continue dressing him, or denying him a second muffin, or that I haul him down the stairs screaming his head off only to find that we’re both fine by the time we get outside. My increased equanimity around his outbursts seems to have a good affect on both of us. And it seems like he’s been a little less out of control at school.

I am hoping that by letting go of things I cannot truly control—including Leo’s behavior—I can become an easier person myself. That will make one of us, at least! So far, I’m finding that in between the big showdowns, major messes and minor calamities, I’ve been able to focus much more on my sweet, loving, earnest and creative little boy. Constant Chaos can be quite delicious.

Recipe: Constant Chaos Tea

Zoe Singer is a freelance food writer and cookbook editor and co-author of The Flexitarian Table. Food Editor and blogger for The Faster Times, she tries not to eat for two now that her son is a toddler.