One of my three-year-old’s favorite pastimes is checking out photos and videos of himself on my phone. He had been enjoying his trip down vanity lane, but we do try to set limits on our children’s screen time. Not only that, but it was naptime, and well, I needed a nap, too.
I gave him a heads up that his time with my phone would be coming to an end. I didn’t get much of a response, so I told him again. This time he might have acknowledged me, or maybe he was just nodding at a photo of himself with marginal approval.
After what seemed like an appropriate amount of time, I told him to power down the phone. He expressed his displeasure, quite fervently. I tried another tactic; I told him that he could look just a little bit longer, and I would have our buddy Alexa set an alarm. Two minutes later, the alarm played its charming little chime, and this time, I insisted that he give me back my phone. He still had very little interest in that idea. After the final and last warning, I started the official Dad count to ten, urging him to “make a good decision” every third number or so. I got to ten, and the situation had not changed.
I took back my phone and unleashed a meltdown of epic proportions.
I carried my kicking and screaming child up two flights of stairs all with the familiar track of “I want to look at pictures on Daddy’s phone” playing on repeat at that ear splitting decibel that only a toddler can reach. We made occasional stops so that I could peal his tiny fingers off of any surface he had been able to grab hold of in an attempt to delay our ascent.
During this whole affair, his twin brother had tired of his sibling’s tantrum and put himself to bed. His mother had already completed her portion of the pre-naptime ritual, and he was eagerly waiting for my musical performance so that he could go to sleep. Much to his chagrin, his lullabies had to be sung over the wails of his brother, still lamenting the wrong that I had done him.
Now armed with maternal backup, we finally got my son into his room. Throughout the whole ordeal, I had yet to yell at the kid. When he had calmed down a little, in a soft voice, I attempted to explain the situation to my son. I explained that I had given him multiple chances before I took the phone from him. I explained the importance of naptime and how his being overtired was probably contributing to his current mood. Yet still he persisted. His mother tried a similar tactic, explaining the situation to him.
Then he hit her.
Most behavioral issues with my children, I chalk up to them being three. They’re usually minor annoyances that, while they may require some sort of disciplinary response, don’t really push me to Bruce Banner levels of anger. Our son hitting my wife or I is the major exception here.
I didn’t yell. I had made it this far into the storm, and I was committed to weathering it without yelling. I did, however, drop the timbre of my voice a few octaves into full on Dad tone. It was not an increase in volume, but rather a change in tone that conveyed the unacceptability of his actions. The tantrum paused long enough for him to turn, look his mother in the eyes and apologize for hitting her. However, it was only a short break in the meltdown.
At this point, we closed the door and left the room. This was apparently a clear sign to my son that it was time to ratchet up the intensity. He pounded on the door. He yelled until his screams became a raspy cough. I gave it a moment and went back in.
I had no intention in giving into this tiny terrorist, but we were well into an hour at this point. I held my son as he continued to express his rage and frustration. Again, I tried to reason with this unreasonable tiny human to no avail. Finally, his mom came in and whispered her solution in my ear. We made a compromise with him. If he would get into bed and let us tuck him in, we would allow him to look at pictures for one more minute. The screams stopped immediately, and through residual sniffling little sobs, he agreed. When his minute was up, he voluntarily shut off the phone and handed it back.
I can practically see some of the thoughts going through the minds of people as they read this. Every parent knows exactly what to do when someone else’s kid is throwing a tantrum. I can visualize comments like “this is what happens when people don’t spank their kids” or “he’s just doing it for attention; just ignore him, and he’ll eventually fizzle himself out and fall asleep.” I can imagine anecdotal accounts of what people’s parents would have done if they’d ever had the audacity to strike them. I can sense the feelings of judgement as we failed to stand our ground and gave into his demands. Personally, my only regret during the whole situation was that I hadn’t given in sooner.
What lesson had I taught my son? When you want someone to do something that they don’t want to do, you should never give an inch? In stubbornly sticking to my guns in a battle of wills against a strong-willed toddler in an attempt to enforce an arbitrary rule, I had taken common sense and compromise off the table. Not once did I empathize with my son’s point of view other than spitting out parental clichés like “sometimes we don’t get to do the things we want to do” and “because I said so!” I was so committed to patting myself on the back for not resorting to yelling when my kid was not doing what was asked of him that I had forgotten to try and resolve the situation.
I know my son. In the last three and a half years, we’ve become well-acquainted. Not only is he a sensitive little dude, but he is stubborn as can be. Despite that, I traveled the path of greatest resistance knowing what the outcome would be. Yet with the tiniest amount of empathy and compromise, the whole situation could have been avoided.
Luckily for us, I’m sure our children won’t hesitate to give us an opportunity to reevaluate our strategies for conflict resolution.