A DIALOGUE ON TANTRUMS AND TOILET TRAINING

From the NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY

By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Q. You wrote a long article on tantrums — mine will be short.

When our granddaughter was six years old, she and her brother were visiting us. One lunchtime, I decided to clean up some leftovers. My husband asked for more spaghetti. When I reminded him that he was trying to lose some weight, he pretended to cry.

While my back was turned, Shanta said, “It won’t work.” So he “cried” some more. I could hear Shanta sigh, then repeat, “It won’t work, Granddad. I tried it once.”

Volumes have been written on this subject by brilliant scholars. It took a 6-year-old only eight words. When I see a child having a tantrum in a store, my sympathy is with the child, who has been “programmed” to do this — and is not a happy child.

A. What a wonderful story! What a lovely way for your granddaughter to try to help her grandfather learn the lesson she’s learned from your clear, firm messages: that he should respect your clear authority. When parents or grandparents are not clear, a child on the edge of an inner conflict is thrown into more confusion, and a temper tantrum is a likely response.

Tantrums at different ages are the result of different conflicts. In the second and third years, they are normal and are a reflection of the child’s wish to make her own decision, “Do I or don’t I? Will I or won’t I?” For an older child, the reasons may be quite different — such as wanting to get attention or wanting her own way in the face of an undecided parent. This is a time when firm but friendly discipline, such as “Of course you want to go, but the answer is clearly and decidedly no.” By 6 or 7, tantrums should be less common and when they involve physical aggression, we may be well beyond the run-of-the-mill tantrums for which your advice is so pertinent. A child having repeated tantrums, especially at older ages, is surely an unhappy one crying out for help. Your granddaughter sounds wonderful — clear about when it’s no longer her decision or her grandfather’s

Toilet Training

Opinions on toilet-training are forcefully held. Here’s another contribution to the continuing dialogue, prompted by our recent column on the topic. Thanks to the many of you who have offered your creative ideas to help children decide: “I’m ready!”

Q. When my daughter didn’t quite get the hang of the potty, my father thought she could do it if she just gave it a little more effort. He knew she wanted to take ballet classes, so he bought her a leotard and told her that they didn’t make a style that would fit over a diaper. He told her to try out the leotard, and if she could wear it for a day without her diaper, remembering to always go to the potty, then she would be “big enough” to go to dancing school. It worked! She never wore a diaper again.

A. A fascinating strategy! We hope our readers can appreciate the difference between this approach, which leaves the child to discover her own motivation and to decide that she is ready, as opposed to those that put parents in the position of doling out rewards, or punishments.

To a young child just think how different it sounds to be told “you can’t take ballet unless you use the potty” as opposed to what your father almost seemed to be saying: “If they made leotards to fit over diapers, then you could keep wearing them, but since they don’t there may be a way for you to manage without them.”

Part of the secret of success of a strategy like this is that it does not pit the parent against the child — instead, both work together to face a shared challenge. Then, the child needn’t hold onto her diapers to prove that she can resist a parent’s pressure.

There are so many daily conflicts with children that can be turned into opportunities for learning rather than just another struggle when parents can join children in seeing their common goals. “The leotard may help you figure out whether you are ready to make your own decision to be ‘grown up.’ ” Not pressure, but a goal for her grown up achievement. Bravo!


Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton heads the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is Director of Strategy, Planning and Program Development at the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.