My son made a fairly reasonable request yesterday morning: he wanted to walk my wife up the block to the corner, where she would then bike to work and he’d sprint home to me. He had been well-behaved since waking up, and I would be there on the sidewalk watching him the whole time, so sure, my wife and I said. No problem.
All went according to plan — at the corner he kissed her and waved furiously as she rode off — until the moment Felix was supposed to run back home. He turned and looked me in the eye. I gestured for him to come, at which point he turned and took off down the block after my wife, a distant figure pedaling toward the horizon.
The kid knows about staying on the sidewalk, so I wasn’t worried that he was going to dart into the street. And with so many people on their way to work, I wasn’t really scared anything was going to happen to him either. It was just the principal, you know? Breaking a promise. Running around the corner so that he couldn’t see me and I couldn’t see him. Not heeding me beckoning him.
I was pretty ticked.
I went to fetch him, and Felix came back onto our street before I reached the corner, so at least I didn’t have to chase him. Curbing my impulse to lecture, I spat only a few sentences at him, letting him know that what he did wasn’t safe.
In response, he had a tantrum. Like a crazy “I’m going to rip your throat out, Daddy!” meltdown.
Whoa, there buddy! I wasn’t the one who decided to run off.
But wait—let’s rewind and examine what happened. Was a tantrum inevitable?
(1.) At four years old, my son can’t always figure out what he’s feeling or why, or what he can do to help himself feel better. After a nice morning playing with mommy, and a long weekend full of love and attention, he might have been upset that the week was beginning. We all get a case of the Mondays every now and again. Instead of saying, “I’m sad mom’s going to work,” he had a visceral, non-verbal response. He choose to pick a fight. Or to express his displeasure at spending the day with daddy by running away. Or maybe he just couldn’t stop saying goodbye to my wife. Or else my reprimanding him might have been just too much, the final straw that caused him to crack.
(2.) I’ve noticed that in the past few weeks Felix has chosen to wage wars that he knows he can’t win. He understands not to run away from Mommy and Daddy, he already went through this phase. But he sometimes deliberately breaks rules and then gets upset when we scold him about it, like “I know I shouldn’t have done that Daddy! You don’t have to tell me!”
My wife and I have developed a saying for this: If you know it, show it. This seems to both drive him up a wall (it is a pretty annoying, parental thing to say) and also work.
So Felix might have been angry that I was angry with him, like “Duh, Dad, I know I shouldn’t have run away, you don’t have to get so bent out of shape about it.”
Whatever the case, I made a bad call when walking up the street to him. I decided to let my anger, annoyance, and yes, fear, creep into my voice; to let him know that I was upset with him. I didn’t say much, but I said it in a “you really ticked me off!” tone.
It would have been better to have expressed my displeasure in a calmer way. Whether he was acting out negative emotions or simply testing authority boundaries, my aggravation accomplished nothing positive. If I had tamped down the heat of my emotions, I might not have sparked the fire of his ire. He might not have reacted so crazily, and that I then wouldn’t have had to deal with a yucky tantrum in the middle of the sidewalk, a freak-out which then continued in the house and derailed our nice morning.
There are small moments as a parent when you have to make a decision to be the adult, the calm, rational one. And to recognize that sometimes an emotional reaction is just what your kids want to get from you.