Bet you think this post is going to be about discipline techniques when toddlers throw temper tantrums, right? Well, you’re wrong. But before I explain, let me tell you a story.

Recently my family visited an aquarium.Β  The teens, hubby, in-laws and I all walked around looking at the various creatures.

At one exhibit, Rebecca, my 16-year-old, stopped to admire the boxfish. Standing beside her was a little 4-year-old boy we didn’t know. She started talking to him: “Do you see that funny looking fish right there? It’s called a boxfish. Can you guess why?”

“Cause it looks like a box!” he said. “That’s right!” said Becca. “But there are some fish hiding in the sand at the bottom. Can you find them?”

This conversation went on for a few minutes as the other mother and I watched. Becca would point things out, and ask him to find things, and he would jump up and down whenever he found something hiding, or noticed something new. And as I listened, it occurred to me that she reminded me of someone.

She reminded me of me.

Because every time we went anywhere when they were babies and toddlers, Keith and I kept up a running commentary of everything, just like she did, constantly asking questions to the children and interacting with them.

As Rebecca was doing this, several other 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds were in the background, throwing temper tantrums. The parents were trying to get them to be quiet, to discipline them, threatening them “time outs” and “We’re going to leave right now!”

But as Rebecca and I headed off, she said to me, “those parents weren’t actually showing the kids anything.” They were walking through this aquarium, talking to each other and their adult companions, and expecting the kids to behave without interacting with them at all. Then they were upset when their toddlers would throw temper tantrums.

How to Stop Temper Tantrums Before They Start--let's talk prevention! With an example of grocery shopping with kids.

Children tend to throw temper tantrums in public for two reasons: they are deliberately disobedient, or they are bored out of their minds.

I personally don’t think disciplining for being bored is appropriate, but often we confuse the two, because they look similar. The kids whine. They won’t sit still. They might start a temper tantrum. But it’s really our fault, not theirs. We’ve asked something of them that they are too young to give.

Have you ever sat in a doctor’s office, when across from you is a mother with a toddler, and the child is swinging his legs. The mom is ignoring him, but every now and then she hisses, “Johnny, sit still.” He becomes dejected, and increasingly starts wiggling, because he’s bored. Why didn’t she just bring a book to read him?

I’ve written a bunch about disciplining kids, and being consistent, and following through on this blog, and yet with all that, I have to admit that I rarely actually had to discipline the girls for what they did in public. Their worst infractions were fighting with each other. They were rarely bad or caused a scene, and I think it’s because they simply were never bored.

Let me illustrate this with one of most people’s least favourite activities: grocery shopping. Few things instigate temper tantrums as much as being in a big store filled with food for half an hour! Yet I honestly never never had much of a problem shopping with my kids, because I had strategies (I was also only juggling two children, not four or five as some of you are, admittedly!–hats off to you!). Here’s what we did:

1. Grocery Shopping with Babies

Talked constantly. “Mommy’s buying broccoli. See the broccoli? Yummy!” The whole time through the store I was talking to them and making eye contact. I’d get strange looks from other shoppers!

Grocery shopping with babies--what to do to prevent temper tantrums

2. Grocery Shopping with Older Babies, Toddlers

The first thing we did was buy 2 bananas or 2 of those dried fruit snacks. I’d pay at the express line, and then they had something to eat while we shopped (you couldn’t bring food from home; they wouldn’t believe you didn’t just take it off of the shelf).

Then we’d play the colour game. Let’s see how many things we buy that are yellow! What’s yellow? Butter’s yellow! Lemons are yellow! The wrapping on the spaghetti is yellow!

3. Grocery Shopping with Pre-schoolers; Kindergarteners

We graduated to letters. How many things can we buy that begin with the letter “B”? Bread! Butter! Broccoli! They’d scan the shelves for things that started with the B sound, even if we weren’t buying it. If I picked up popcorn kernels, I’d say, “does this begin with B?” And then they’d debate and try to figure it out, because P and B are awfully close.

And then all the way home, they’d scan signs for the letter B.

The next time we’d move on to D, or P, or M.

4. Grocery Shopping with Elementary School Aged Kids

Grocery shopping with elementary aged kids--what to do to prevent temper tantrums and actually have fun

How much do you think this is going to cost? We’d round everything to the nearest dollar and they’d try to keep a running tally, and we’d see how right we were. As they got older, we tried rounding it to 50 cents. And we always had to guess on the things we paid for by weight!

And I’d start sending them for some things themselves (but always together). I’d say, “can you two go get the milk?”, or “can you two go get the chocolate chips?” (They really liked getting the chocolate chips!)

5. Grocery Shopping with Teens

Even today (my children are teens) we still do a grocery game. Today it’s more like: who can guess closest to the total cost? And the winner gets to choose what we have for dinner, or what game we play on family night. You can even let older children be responsible for the coupons–or give them a cut of the savings to motivate them to find more coupons. So, for instance, if they manage to find coupons that save you $25, you could give them 20% of that, or $5.

The vast majority of the time that I see small children screaming in the grocery cart, with full-blown temper tantrums threatening, I think they are simply bored. The mom has not spent any time talking to them except to issue orders. “Sit still!” “No, we can’t get that!” “Get your hands back in the cart!”. She’s exhausted. They’re frustrated. And everybody HATES grocery shopping.

Children are naturally curious. Their job, as a child, is to learn about the world and how it works. That’s what they start doing from the moment they are born. Our job is to help them. And yet sometimes I don’t think we parents give room for our children’s natural curiosity. If you can channel it into something healthy, then they’re far less likely to start screaming in Wal-Mart.

My girls and I watch episodes of Nanny 911 and Supernanny on Youtube, and one of the things that we’ve noticed is that so many of the dysfunctional parents on these shows don’t actually TALK to their children. They may carry their children around all day, but they don’t say anything to them. And if their kids start whining or talking or threaten a temper tantrum, the first response is to stick some food in their mouths, or try to deflect them with a snack.

Talking to your children makes such a difference in warding off temper tantrums–and in raising well adjusted kids.

I kept a running commentary up with my kids from the time they came out of the womb. I talked with them nonstop. I explained the world to them. I pointed things out to them when we were outside, so they would learn about the world. And the neat thing is that the more you interact with them and talk to them and spend time with them (even if it’s just while you’re on errands), then the more they give you free time at home. They’ll play quietly without you for at least a few minutes at a time because they know Mommy loves them. They’ve already been talking to Mommy for hours.

I do believe in consistent and firm discipline, but I think if we started off, when the children are small, talking to them and really interacting with them, discipline would be much easier. And a toddler throwing a temper tantrum would be a far more rare occurrence.

I don’t mean to toot my own horn in all this; I think the reason that Rebecca knew to talk to that little boy was because I talked to her, and the reason I talked to her was because my mother did the same to me. It was natural, so I have no reason to take pride in it, as if it was something brilliant I discovered. It’s just what I naturally did.

But I know that doesn’t come naturally for everyone, because not all of us were raised that way. Nevertheless, you can learn it. And if you learn how to do it, then think of how your children will raise their children! You’re setting a whole new pattern.

I have more I want to say on this subject in an upcoming post on raising great kids, but I think I’ll leave it there for today and ask for your comments. Do you find it hard to talk to your kids? Or have you noticed the same phenomenon I have? Let me know!

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