The Dolphin Divide

Sounding the Depths of Our Common Consciousness

What To Do When the Fit Goes Hissy — In Public

A survival guide for disallowing the unallowable

A true tale from the city of New York where the streets are tough and love, at times, can be even tougher:

A father, 36, and daughter, 5, are making their way down a sidewalk. It’s a relatively quiet hour on a relatively quiet day in a relatively quiet neighborhood. But it’s New York, so there are people about. All is well for a time. Then it happens, the moment all parents dread.

A single conversational misstep with a five-year-old. Suddenly it’s showtime and all the world’s a stage. Even worse, all the world is witness. The curtain goes up on – you guessed it – the public tantrum.

The cherubic face that so beguiled you just a moment ago is twisted and red with demonic rage. There is huffing and there is puffing. There is foot-stomping and head-jerking. There are miniature fists balled in frustration flailing at air. Your child appears genuinely possessed. There are hot tears running. But most of all, there is screaming. Holy cow, is there screaming. Like that of a banshee awaiting damnation.

You stare blankly, dumbfounded. But it is too late. The show has begun and already you are famous.

People stop in their tracks on both sides of the street. They glance at your daughter. They glance at you. Settling in for the entertainment, they fold their arms and wait. You probably should be offering them popcorn. But the tilt of their heads and the angle of their eyebrows tells you they might not be receptive to your hospitality just now.

In fact, somewhere in the back of your mind you’re imagining their recriminations: “What on earth have you done to this child?” or “Does your daughter always act this way?” or “Hey, buddy, this is a public place. Are you really going to allow this?”

Well, are you?

The answer, if you’re clever, is yes you will.

When faced with the pressure of public disapproval, it may be tempting to pacify the child. Offer a candy, promise a toy. Beg, bribe, or plead your way out of a socially awkward situation. Anything, anything, to make the tantrum stop.

Many parents cave in and do just that.

The long-term results of caving, however, can be disastrous as the child learns to bully her way toward unearned rewards – a habit that can end up going unchecked for many years to come. Just as damaging can be the temptation to quash the tantrum with a fit of one’s own. But a raised voice laced with harsh tones threatening punishment can leave your child feeling unheard and disrespected – an approach likely to fuel tantrums rather than quiet them

So your five-year-old is in the middle of a melt-down on a public street in New York City. What do you do?

The father in question in this case put his daughter on a time-out. Right then. Right there. Tough call to make when the whole world’s watching. But much more effective than waiting until some later time when, presumably out of public view, the time-out would likely have been punishing some behavior other than the tantrum.

As any good behaviorist knows, humans (and even other animals) are associatively hard-wired to link punishing events to whatever behavior immediately precedes the punishment. So a gap in time between tantrum and time-out simply won’t communicate the message “This isn’t acceptable behavior” no matter what lengths parents go to by means of patient explanation to bridge the gap.

Professional animal trainers make frequent use of time-outs to bridge the cross-species language barrier that is inherent in their line of work, so they are a routine and expected part of the communication loop for both trainer and animal. But even in a professional setting, the effects of a time-out can sometimes intensify a tantrum.

As a former dolphin trainer, I have seen dolphins placed on time-outs occasionally respond with the marine mammal version of a perfect fit. Unhappy with the interruption of an otherwise smooth training session, some dolphins will vault high into the air and angle their bodies to the side before landing so as to produce a thunderingly loud, bellyflop-like smack of protestation. Dolphin tantrums can also include loud slaps at the water’s surface with tail flukes and herky-jerky swimming reminiscent of a child’s angry foot-stomping. The point is, sometimes things get worse before they get better.

Our father with the audience in the Big Apple understood that intuitively (or perhaps from experience) and proactively and protectively improvised some street smart moves that would do any New Yorker proud while simultaneously fending off potential intervention by Child Protective Services or the like.

He deliberately moved a short distance away from his ranting daughter and assumed a clearly relaxed, patient, and non-threatening posture by leaning casually back against a building. He continued to talk to his daughter, explaining that they could discuss whatever was upsetting her as soon as she calmed down. And he told her that he would give her all the time she needed in order to do that.

In the end, his message became clear: “There’s nothing wrong here that can’t be fixed with a little time and patience.” His daughter got the point and gradually calmed herself. Even the onlookers were eventually won over. As the drama drew to a close and people resumed their sidewalk strolls, one man from the gathered crowd paused near the father and said, “Man, that was somethin’ – I think you just invented the Street Time Out.”

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2012

Seth Slater, M.F.A., is a former dolphin trainer for the U.S. Navy and currently teaches creative writing at Cuyamaca College.

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