Copyright Betty Udesen / Pear Press

Will I create a spoiled kid if I give in to the tantrum?

Raise your hand if you can relate to this question from K.G.! Oh, everyone? Excellent.

Q. I made grilled chicken breasts and cut it up for my nearly 3-year-old — who then had a fit because he wanted a big piece. And this trivial little thing made me really uncertain about what to do. Do I refuse to give in because otherwise my toddler will know he can push my buttons and he’ll turn into a tiny dictator? (I mean we are BOMBARDED with stories about spoiled kids whose parents are not capable of setting limits.) OR is this one of those situations where you should pick your battles and this simply ain’t one of them, just not worth it, give him the big piece (which I ended up doing and he ate it and asked for more). I guess we all know we shouldn’t really fret the small stuff. But sometimes it’s difficult to know what the small stuff is or whether the small stuff will eventually turn into big stuff (because it’s a matter of principle). — K.G.

A. You’re right on top of the answer, which is that there’s small stuff and big stuff happening at the same time. In this case, and so many others, it’s useful to separate our kids’ desire from our kids’ delivery. We’re afraid our kids will turn into tiny dictators because of the way they “asked” for what they wanted, right? If they had just said, adult-style, “Mom, I’d prefer one big piece. Can we trade?” we’d be like, “Oh, I didn’t realize that — here you go.” But they had a fit, and we don’t want to encourage the fit as their means of asking.

The chicken isn’t the real issue for us, so withholding it doesn’t address our real issue. I mean: We’re not trying to raise children who prefer small pieces of chicken. Or children who don’t have preferences. Or children who don’t care when things don’t go their way. We’re trying, generally, to raise children who can ask for what they need in a calm way and who are resilient in the face of disappointment.

Research says here’s what works best in the long-term: Acknowledge the desire (their real issue) while also guiding them / setting limits on the delivery (our real issue).

“Emotion first, problem second,” as I say in Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science. (Or, as parenting coach Sandy Blackard puts it, “Say what you see.”)

“You’re feeling mad. I cut up your chicken. You wanted a big piece of chicken.” Try to match the intensity of your voice to that of your child’s emotion.

And then calmly, in an I’m-not-taking-this-personally way, give what Blackard calls your boundary + can-do: “I can help you when you ask in a calm voice. You can say, ‘Mama, I’d like a big piece.'”

If your little one needs help calming down, go for it — hug, deep breaths together, drink of water, whatever you guys do. When you see a strength, name it: “You know how to ask for what you need.” “You know how to calm down.”

Upon the switching of chicken, you could reassure him: “I didn’t realize you liked a big piece of chicken! I like a big piece, too. Next time, I will ask first. You can always let me know what you like.”

This way we don’t squelch our child’s preferences, which is at the core of who they are, and we don’t feel incapable of setting limits.

Alternate scenarios

Let’s say we quickly hand over the chicken to avoid the tantrum. You know what? We don’t always have the time or energy to do more. That’s just reality, and it’s not a huge deal. We can always come back later and talk about it. Or we can try again next time.

Let’s say we don’t think chicken size should be a big deal to our kid. It just seems so darn unreasonable. But an emotion is, on one level, simply the brain’s way of tagging something as “important to me.” My post “The red balloon” gets more into why there’s no point wishing away someone else’s emotion.

Let’s say your kid really does do better with smaller pieces of chicken. You could begin to involve him in the process. Ask, “Would you like to cut up your chicken together?” Or “Would you like to help me cut my chicken?” And then you show him how, with both of you holding the fork and knife. At some point, let him cut or encourage him to cut his own chicken. (Without jumping in to help, even though you can do it better and faster, unless he asks.)

What if the desire is something we can’t accommodate? I remember this same scenario happened to me out on a hike in sweltering San Diego. We had one orange, and I made the dire mistake of breaking it into segments before handing it to my 2-year-old. We still need to acknowledge the desire. That’s because everyone’s deep-down need is to feel heard. And then we can help our kids practice dealing with tough emotions by naming them and calming down.

Often, though, we can find a way to accommodate the small stuff without giving up on the big stuff.

Why does this approach work best in the long-term? Because it begins to teach our children something useful for the long-term: about how to interact with people, how to get your needs met, how to deal with emotions. That’s the heart of the tip “Teach instead of punish” in my book, and the heart of effective parenting.

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Copyright Betty Udesen / Pear Press
Written by

Tracy Cutchlow

Tracy is the author of the international bestseller Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science, a public speaker, and a creator of places to speak and be heard. Sign up for her newsletter here.

8 thoughts on “Will I create a spoiled kid if I give in to the tantrum?

  1. So enjoy your weekly tips – many are good for 12 year old kids, too! I especially appreciated the distinction in this post between desire and delivery. I laughed at “we aren’t trying to raise kids who like little pieces of chicken. 🙂 Thanks for consistently providing such a great resource to parents! Love, Mom

  2. i love this post! but i find myself *really* wanting to know how you handled the split orange. the chicken scenario seems easily handled because there was an uncut piece to offer. but you already split the orange, you can’t undo that. i find myself telling my kids “i can’t put it back together! so deal with it.” what’s a better way to handle a thing you did that they didn’t like that you can’t offer an alternative to?

    1. Hey, Elis! Thanks for writing! Yeah, sometimes we can’t solve the problem; we can only be with them in their anger or sadness or disappointment, and acknowledge, “This is hard.”

      When I handed G the orange, she immediately burst into tears. I probably thought the same thing you did. But what I said was, “Oh, you wanted the orange to be whole. I didn’t realize. You’re feeling SO sad!” We hugged while she cried, and I just made some empathetic “Oh, sweetie” sounds. Then I said, “Next time I will ask you first.” After she had calmed down, I said, “This is the only orange we have” and asked if she would still like to eat it, which she did. That was at 2 years old.

      Today, at 3 1/2, she would probably be angry and say: “Then I’m NEVER going to eat an orange AGAIN!” (Not sure where she picked up that one.) I would try acknowledging: “You’re feeling mad because I split the orange! You didn’t like that!” Depending on what she said or did next, I might say, “It’s really hard to be disappointed” or “Oh, sweetie, I understand. I’m sorry this is so hard.” (Later I would show things we can do when we’re mad, because I’m not a fan of this “never” phrase.)

      The thing is staying on the emotion and empathizing with it, leaving long pauses for them to process. Not getting all logical. Not moving on to problem-solving until they’re calm. Anger usually turns to sadness before dissipating, so this often takes more than one round. It’s a shift in mindset: That our job is to help them have the emotion, instead of feeling that the emotion is directed at us and reacting in frustration to that. Not always easy. But when we’re able to do it, it feels so much better for everyone.

      Hope that helps!

  3. Very well said, Tracy! Years ago, I remember being stuck in horrible freeway traffic with my very thirsty 4 year- old daughter (she’s now 31 and mom to a 2-year old). We were far from an exit, my air-conditioning wasn’t working on a very hot day, and we had nothing to drink in the car. My daughter started whining for water, juice, soda (she had never had soda before, but knew what it was and that it would probably push my buttons) She was beginning to escalate, and I wasn’t feeling so great myself, when I remembered to acknowledge her feelings. I had just taken a Positive Discipline parenting class. I let her know that I could imagine just how thirsty she must be in this heat. The old me would have tried to explain to her that there was nothing I could do, and ordered her to “Stop whining!” I decided to give her what she wanted in a wish, so she really felt heard. I responded to my daughter, with an intensity that matched hers, “I bet you wish this car could fly over all the other cars and get you a drink right now!” She calmed slightly and replied with an emphatic, “YES, I DO!” I continued, “What kind of cold drink would you want this special car to take you to get?” She replied, (in a much calmer voice) that she really wanted a Slurpee (she also had never had one of those, but heard friends talking about them) I asked her, “What color Slurpee?” We continued to discuss how great an ice cold, blue Slurpee would taste to both of us. We even imagined pouring them on top of our heads. We were both soon laughing. We eventually came to our exit and were home in no time. We both ran in to get some water (the only cold beverage we had besides milk) and it never tasted so good. I did not feel the need to go out and try to find a Slurpee (she didn’t ask) and it was months before she reasonably requested one again. My little 4-year old just wanted to be heard and understood.

  4. what age do we start this? I have a 13 month old and he doesn’t seem to care much of what I say. He just wants what he wants and is sure to let us know.

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