Tantrums, stubbornness, childishness. Perhaps it is due to a melding of worlds born out of exhaustion, but I have recently begun to experience the actions of our toddler as parallel to the actions of our current government. Even before the election, parenting could feel relentless. Now it now feels like I am living through a constant temper tantrum, both at home and in the public sphere. In recognizing the similarities, I have begun to ask myself what my toddler may be teaching me about our current political reality, and how I can best respond.
A few weeks ago, a month or two after his 3rd birthday, our toddler began the “jack in the box” routine of jumping out of his crib after we put him down at night. A kid who used to be an excellent sleeper, who was soothed and lulled by our nighttime routine, was now resisting bedtime, demanding another book, another song, refusing to stay in his crib— even crying, hitting, screaming. At first we tried to acquiesce to his demands, only to realize that he would never be satisfied. Each time we thought we were giving him what he wanted, he demanded more, became more enraged. Then, we tried to reason with him: “It’s night, you’re tired, we’re tired, this is not OK, you need to go to bed.” More screaming and resistance. Then (though I’m embarrassed to admit it), we resorted to anger, “Why do you have to make bedtime so awful?! We used to enjoy bedtime with you now we dread it! Is your life really so hard that you have to scream like this?!” As we escalated, he escalated. His hitting turned to biting, his screaming reached a fevered pitch. We were all starting to spin out of control.
It became clear that our reactions were only stoking the problem we were trying to solve. We consulted with our handy sleep book on what to do and learned about the “silent return to sleep” method. This approach says not to engage the enraged child in any way during these tantrums, and says that any type of engagement, even negative reinforcement, will only feed the problem. Instead, this method directs you to wait outside your child’s room. When they jump the crib and leave their room, you simply pick them up – without making eye contacting or speaking to them – and place them back in their bed, leave the room and close the door. You are to repeat this as many times as is necessary until the child stops. While to some this may seem harsh, we had had no luck with any other approach and were eager to try. The first night we attempted this, we had to place him back in his crib 13 times. The second night, 3 times. He hasn’t done it again since then.
There is something about the neutrality of response that has felt very important. We were still doing what needed to be done— getting our child back to bed—but now without any emotional engagement. This approach of setting firm, loving limits has been the most effective in dissipating negative behavior and, not only that, it has strengthened our bond. I have started using this tactic in response to the many varieties of tantrums that occur throughout the day. When he lashes out and hits me because I’m telling him it’s time to eat dinner and he wants to play, my immediate inclination may be to yell at him for not listening, or to walk away in anger until he’s done fuming. But I don’t do this: now, I have begun to reach out, draw him near and hold him in my arms, calmly, until he stops. Though there are times that he resists at first and struggles against me, soon his body grows limp, his anger spills away and he rests his head on my chest. A few moments later he is ready to eat dinner, or take a bath, or put on pajamas.
In the months since the election I have been increasingly moved towards feelings of rage and hate. As I experience our government enacting what I see as discriminatory, even hateful policies, it has aroused the parts of myself where my own hate and violence live. In many ways the recent actions of our new administration—from policies to press conference to the caliber of political appointees— have felt like the equivalent of high pitched toddler tantrums: they are unpredictable, often violent, seemingly uncalled for, out of control and infuriating. And they come one after the other.
Of course, with a toddler, actions like lashing out and hitting are developmentally appropriate. With the government, we rightly expect a higher level of civility and maturity. But the reality is just as we are stuck with our toddler, even in his worst moods, we are stuck with our current government, for now.
What I have learned from my 3-year-old is something I’ve always known in theory but now know with my full being. Responding to anger with anger only breeds more anger, strains a relationship and serves to further entrench the problem. Responding to anger with firm, loving limits dissipates the anger, nurtures the relationship and more often than not solves the problem.
Perhaps at this moment, we are all being called upon to activate the motherly parts of ourselves on the national level. As old systems crumble, new forms of leadership are called for—and those skills and capacities we have developed as parents are needed more than ever. Whether it is through organizing our communities, attending town hall meetings, calling our representatives, getting out the vote, rallying in solidarity with those most in harm’s way, we can learn from parenting how to take action without violence and anger in action or in speech. We can reassert basic ideas about what’s fair and just without getting into an emotional, angry tug-of-war.
I pray that we have the strength and conviction to pull from the same well of compassion that we do for our children, for our country. As parents we learn how to set firm, loving limits without anger, violence or hate. If we view our country the same way, I believe we have the potential to dissipate the anger, create more just and equitable solutions, and renew our relationship to this land that we call home.