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Nashville Scene Tantrum Tales

Throwing the big one, in public

By Margaret Renkl

NOVEMBER 15, 1999:  As a former English major, I can't quite shake the belief that the resolution to all of life's quandaries can be found, if sought for diligently enough, in the pages of a book. Other people call a friend when they need advice; I go to the library.

And since motherhood is invariably the subject about which I need the most advice, I end up bringing home a lot of books about child development. My husband scoffs when he finds them on my bedside table. He says parenting books, at their best, do nothing but articulate the obvious, and at their worst make perfectly acceptable parents feel guilty for no good reason. He's been saying this for years, but it wasn't until last week that I finally started to see his point.

One of the parenting-book tenets that I've most taken to heart is the universal discipline recommendation: "The key to well-behaved kids is consistent rules, fairly and firmly applied." Partly out of abject fear of raising spoiled brats and partly out of stubborn conviction that no 25-pound person is going to beat me in a battle of wills, I'm genuinely consistent about enforcing rules. At our house, when Mama says "No," the answer is "No."

According to the child-psychology books, this policy is supposed to result in well-mannered children who accept parental decisions without passionate resistance. If the rules are reasonable and don't change from one day to the next, there's just no point in throwing a fit.

So how to explain that last week my middle son suddenly ceased to be a recognizable human being and became instead an evil, bile-spewing fiend whose whole body was wracked by howling, high-pitched, keening shrieks? In front of about 200 other people?

It happened at the ballpark. The baby and I were late returning from an errand, so my husband took both older boys with him to deliver our firstborn to the final game of Fall Ball, which unfortunately fell during the younger children's nap time. So I drove to the field to pick up the 3-year-old before heading home for the nap the little ones always take at 1 p.m. (I'm consistent, see?)

But when my husband began to buckle our normally compliant son into his booster seat, and the boy began to realize that this edition of the Great American Pastime was about to unfold in his absence, he suddenly started bucking and kicking and lashing out with his tiny 3-year-old fists, all the while wailing, "I WANT TO STAY AT THE BALL GAME WIF DADDY!"

"Maybe he's thirsty," my husband said inexplicably over the din, gazing down in shock at his writhing, flailing son. "Maybe if I get him a Sprite he'll settle down." Before I could suggest that a fast getaway might be the better option, my husband was headed toward the concession stand.

Unfortunately, he left the van door standing wide open while he was gone. And unfortunately, there were a dozen people in line before him, and unfortunately, there was only one volunteer manning the stand. By the time he returned, the baby, too, had thrown his head back and started to shriek in sympathetic response to his brother's unhappiness, and all the people in the packed ballpark were peering around, trying to discern what was going on in the torture chamber that was my Ford Windstar.

"We'll come back to the game after our nap," I was saying soothingly, over and over. "I know you want to stay at the game, but it's nap time now." Neither child could possibly have heard a word I said because their own wails were escalating in both volume and intensity--"I WANT TO STAY AT THE BALL GAME WIF DADDY!!! I WANT TO STAY AT THE BALL GAME WIF DADDY!!"--and when I reached back to pat the 3-year-old's knee, he slapped my hand with a smack so powerful it left a bright red, perfectly formed handprint on the top of my own shaking hand.

The Sprite, when it finally arrived, did not improve the situation; the Sprite in fact made matters a good deal worse when it ended up dripping down the window where it had been flung in fury when I did not heed his lucidly expressed 3-year-old de-sire: "I WANT TO STAY AT THE BALL GAME WIF DADDY!!" As we drove away, every adult in that ballpark was glaring at me, the wretched mother of this brat who clearly had never had the benefit of "consistent rules, fairly and firmly applied."

We finally pulled into our own driveway after a 14-minute drive during which the dual-boy screaming in the back seat hadn't lessened one whit, during which my fellow drivers had craned around at each traffic light searching for the source of the cacophony assaulting their ears, and at the end of which even my own neighbors were radiating disapproval when I opened the car doors and released a blast of sound--"I WANT TO STAY AT THE BALL GAME WIF DADDY!!!"--onto our sleepy street. I felt completely defeated. The Department of Human Services might as well come and take all my children away.

"I've never seen anything like it," I moaned later to my friend Jen, the closest thing to a perfect mother I know. "I don't think I've ever even heard of a tantrum that bad."

"Oh yes you have," she said quickly. "Remember when Mark threw a fit in Hill's so horrible I had to leave the full grocery cart in the middle of the aisle? He was crying so hard he threw up all over me before we even got to the car."

That image of the best mother I know covered with vomit and careening past all those disapproving old people in Hill's while her normally gentle little son howled like a rabid coyote in her arms--well, it made me feel better. A whole lot better, I have to admit, than any child-psychology book ever has.

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