Reasons to tantrum;Friday's Child;Parting Shots

1st May 1998 at 01:00
Victoria Neumark on when to scream and shout

There are occasions when it is a good idea to roll upon the ground kicking and screaming, and there are times when it is not.

Good times: when faced with arbitrary execution by a tyrannical power. Consider the example of Madame du Barry, mistress of Louis XV and the only aristo in the French Revolution not to go to the gallows with dignity and sang-froid. Du Barry screamed and shouted at the sight of the guillotine and kicked up such a fuss that the bloodthirsty mob called for her reprieve (not granted). Still, she did not, as Dylan Thomas put it, "go gentle into that good night".

Bad times: when faced with green vegetables, rice pudding or anything disagreeable to eat. A simple "I'd rather not, thank you," should suffice. (Those who have encountered the full-blown rolling on the floor, limbs flailing, breath-holding yelling of a child's tantrum may raise a hollow laugh at this point.) Which raises the question: why do some children have so many tantrums? Surely they could indicate dissent in a civilised manner? Is suggesting that Sam take his coat off in the classroom tantamount to gouging out the eyes of his entire family? Need Rebecca always greet the absence of the green pencil with howls of rage? And ought Simon, who is 11 and really should know better, not be able to restrain himself when he finds out there are no vegetarian dishes left at the lunch servery?

As so often, it is a question of scale. For the child in the grip of rage, it is as if the tumbril had come and the sans-culottes were about to exact their tremendous revenge for centuries of deprivation. Their very identity, survival, voice, is threatened by an uncontrollable contingency: the sweets that cannot be bought at the supermarket, the outing that has been cancelled, the not being picked for a team. Such events are loaded with an overpowering sense of a malignant universe which must be confronted lest it annihilate the poor powerless individual. Frustration is too mild a word.

This is why so much of the advice given out is so useless. "Keep calm", "Don't let it get to you", "Walk away". If you could keep calm, not let it get to you and walk away, it wouldn't be a tantrum, would it? It takes two to tantrum.

The very point and purpose of the tantrum is to shift the burden of intolerable oppression on to the perceived oppressor: the child wants to make you feel bad because he or she feels bad. Sometimes, this can be useful (see above). More often, the most useful thing an adult can offer is a restoration of scale, shrinking the problem. How could we find a new green pencil? What else on the menu might do? Leave your coat on for now and see if you can see why we all take them off.

Shaken by the morning's dramatics, the teacher retires to the staffroom for coffee, only to discover there is no milk. As usual. What to do? Before either going out to get some or resigning yourself to milkless coffee in the adult manner, scream and shout. I should. It'll make you feel better, just for a bit. Especially if it makes the person who finished up the milk feel worse.

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