Whether it arises from dinner being thrown on the floor, a child who opens every cabinet and touches every item within, or the persistent flailing about of a preschooler in winter, we’ve all sometimes wondered if our child would be more at home among a band of pirates. And those issues don’t approach the rolling, wailing, flailing simply because you served me the wrong snack temper tantrum. We’ve all felt the mounting tension, the rising pulse, and the sky-rocketing blood pressure accompanying that first groaning shriek of a tantrum. In those moments we might like to ship our child off to Guantanamo Bay, but is there a more practical response to temper tantrums? Well, if your child is behaving like a terrorist, treat him like one.
In their book Counterstrike, New York Times reporters Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker discuss the developing U.S. strategy in the war on terror. They note that one of the few pre-9/11 Osama Bin Laden experts was a mother of six who used her insights from parenting to understand terrorists. I aim for the reverse, to use counter-terrorism strategy as an insight into dealing with the craziness of childhood.
Deny, Capture and Kill
Immediately after 9/11, counter-terrorism strategy had a dual focus. First was denying terrorists the opportunity to attack American soil again. The idea was that terrorists would find America too well secured, and look for targets elsewhere. The second emphasis was capturing or killing key terrorist leaders. While both strategic emphases experienced some practical successes, they ultimately failed to eliminate terrorism as a global threat. This is because both emphases have emotional roots in fear, anger, and a desire for revenge. As the war on terror progressed, the U.S. learned that we could experience a series of tactical successes and yet be no closer to defeating terrorism.
We’ve all seen parents who rule by emotion. We know capture and kill moms who respond to any transgression with overwhelming rage. We know denial dads who feel so ill-equipped to deal with misbehavior that they seldom take the kids anywhere. These approaches sometimes prevent tantrums, or at least end them quickly, but since they don’t address the cause of misbehavior they don’t reduce its likelihood. Just like battling Al Qaeda, parents can “win” individual battles without winning the war. While there is a time to show our children that they have angered and hurt us and a time to avoid certain activities because we believe they will end poorly, fear, anger, and revenge should not be the guiding principles of parenthood. The U.S. quickly learned that such responses to terrorism don’t work, so should parents. We need to find a way to make children not want to throw tantrums.
As America settled into the war on terror, some voices began to call for a better strategy. The voices came from interesting places, like retirement communities. Some of the masterminds who fought the Cold War insisted that the tactics used against the Soviets could work with Al Qaeda. They were referring to a strategy known as deterrence.
After the Second World War, the United States and Soviet Union stockpiled nuclear weapons. It became imperative to ensure those weapons were never actually used. American intelligence officials recognized that they and the Soviets both valued things like cities, factories, facilities, and people. If convinced that using nuclear weapons would cost them these things, it seemed logical that the Soviets would not use nuclear weapons. In other words, the Soviets needed to think that they would lose more from an attack than they would gain. Traditional deterrence worked very well. Nuclear weapons were not used.
Parenting involves much traditional deterrence. We constantly create, or should be creating, situations where children learn that poor behavior costs more than it gives. When a preschooler throws a tantrum and loses an entire day of television, that’s traditional deterrence. When a teenager loses the car keys for a week after violating curfew, that’s also traditional deterrence. This isn’t just good parenting, it is wisdom for life. What we want right now may cost us what we want most. Traditional deterrence in parenting directs our children away from undesirable behaviors and trains them for adulthood.
While traditional deterrence is a necessary parenting strategy it is not always the best strategy. Traditional deterrence assumes that a showdown is likely, and its practitioner seeks to ensure that she does not lose that showdown. It creates a situation where parents must “win” confrontations through some type of force. Our children learn by “losing” a power encounter with Mom and Dad. While some willful attitudes should be broken, traditional deterrence used poorly can crush the spirit of the child, which is not good parenting. Traditional deterrence is sometimes necessary, but a better strategy aims to avoid unnecessary showdowns.
The New Deterrence
As counter-terror professionals applied traditional deterrence to the struggle with Al Qaeda, they realized terrorists don’t value the same things superpowers do. Terrorists seldom possess large cities or military bases and often sacrifice life in pursuit of ideals. They aren’t influenced by the losses that proved effective in the Cold War. However, that they don’t value the same kinds of things doesn’t mean terrorists don’t value anything. The intelligence community compiled a list of things terrorists do value, like reputation, advancement of religion, operational success, publicity, and unit cohesion.
Convincing terrorists that attacks would cost them things they valued led to new deterrence. Many things terrorists value are legitimate. There are individuals around the world who desire these things, but pursue them without killing other humans. New deterrence seeks to thwart terrorist desires when they attempt attacks, and fulfill their desires when they pursue goals peacefully. Practically that means doing things like publicizing failed terror plots. If terrorists think they will look foolish when an attack fails, they will be less likely to take the risk. The strategy also publicizes individuals who abandon terrorism. Islamic leaders are recruited to commend those who seek peaceful resolutions and condemn those who commit violence. Through diplomatic means, the U.S. has sent representatives and Islamic leaders to nations, even specific villages, known for producing terror recruits to convince younger generations that there is a better way. In short, new deterrence builds on traditional deterrence to convince potential terrorists not just that attacks will cost more than they will gain, but that there are appropriate peaceful avenues to achieve their desires.
I believe that new deterrence is the heart of parenting and the best response to tantrums. As parents, our job is to teach children the appropriate ways to pursue desires. When our child throws a tantrum, it doesn’t mean that we are failures. It warns us that our child is seeking fulfillment in the wrong way. New deterrence teaches us that a tantrum has little to do with the act itself, but is tied up in the surrounding context of the tantrum. We must address inappropriate behavior when it happens (traditional deterrence), but it is more important that we teach our children there are better ways to pursue desires (newdeterrence).
New deterrence might sound complicated, but you don’t need to be scheming like a chess master and patient like a tortoise to make it happen. In fact, it is best to be clear, direct, and simple. Here are a few principles I use with my kids:
Tantrums never succeed. When one of my sons throws a fit, I remind him that tantrums do not succeed, and take whatever disciplinary action is necessary. When he has calmed, I point out that the tantrum did not succeed and that tantrums will never succeed. This action does not fulfill his desire.
Offer an out. Often, parents and children get locked in an adversarial situation which one might “win,” but everyone will lose. Let your child know he is not out of options. During a tantrum, I simply ask my son if he thinks this situation will end well or poorly. Sometimes, he will acknowledge that this will not end well and will back off of his demands. If I am exceptionally wise that day, I then back off and allow him to collect himself or offer some snuggle time. If he decides that his tantrum is leading to a positive resolution, we move to traditional deterrence.
Be predictable. Establish clear routes your children can use to pursue desires. My sons do not receive juice before lunch and then only when they ask politely. The predictable route to obtain juice is to wait until lunch and politely ask for it. Statements along the lines of “I want juice” at 9 AM do not result in juice. There is no surprise in that, and therefore no reason to freak out. . . theoretically.
Good behavior pays off. If we seek to teach our children that there are appropriate avenues to fulfill dreams, then we must reward the pursuit of those avenues. My oldest son loves staying up late, but we only let him do so when he has been pleasant and helpful throughout the day. When he does this, he gets to stay up late for some special time with Mom and Dad. His use of the appropriate avenue pays off. If you make a shopping trip with the kids and they behave well, reward them. It doesn’t need to be with toys and snacks. Sometimes looking into their eyes and expressing pride and gratitude is plenty. Be creative, but reward good behavior.
In St. Paul’s letter to the Christians in ancient Philippi he confesses, “Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of this. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” Paul was talking about his journey as a follower of Jesus Christ, but I embrace the same attitude as a parent. My home is not characterized by Zen-like calm and special agent style strategizing. I too run thin on patience, lose my temper, and just do and say stupid, thoughtless, things. But, I see a better way. A way to guide my children into adulthood with care, thoughtfulness, and intelligence, and I invite you to press on with me toward that goal.
Childhood is an adventure. It is an exploding world of discovery, possibility, and imagination. It is an astonishing place where play is work and work is play. Awe and wonder are as familiar as neighbors, and every day has the potential for amazement. From our childhood we bring our dreams for life and form those dreams into plans and mold those plans into reality. From our childhood we grow our character. But none of this can happen if childhood is not nurtured, guided, and shaped by those older and wiser. If our children are not guided into the pathways of proper behavior, then all of the wonderful things which grow in their imagination will remain dreams. Our children will not grow into adults who work hard to shape the future. They will not travel to Mars or invent a petroleum free world. They will simply become large children who do not know the paths to follow. They will become bitter, jaded, disillusioned, and hateful because they do not know how to turn dreams into reality. They will become the type of person who always blames others, always finds fault, always tears down. They will be adults who throw temper tantrums.