You Have to Get Weird to Stop Your Kid’s Tantrums
Last winter, I took my daughter skiing for the first time. I am the kind of skier whose stopping method is a fancy maneuver I like to call Falling Over on Purpose. Still, it seemed like a fun way to spend a Sunday. The thing is we hadn’t realized that the day before Martin Luther King Jr. Day is the busiest day of the entire ski season. We wound up waiting hours for skis.
The weather was not on our side, and I didn’t blame Sasha for complaining about it. She was cold. I was cold. Everyone in line was cold. But after a while, her whining started grating on me, and I worried that it was getting on other people’s nerves, too. At first I told her that I heard her — I knew it was freezing. But all we could do was hop around, wiggle our limbs, hug each other. Anything to stay as warm as possible. She quickly cycled through those things and ended with a prolonged “I’m booored.” Well, so was I.
I started thinking, “How can I make whining more fun?”
“If you’re gonna whine,” I told Sasha, “you’ve gotta sing the blues.”
She grabbed my arm and hung from it with all her weight, groaning at my suggestion.
“Duh-nuh-nuh-nuh,” I sang, determined to make this work. She dragged me around in a circle by the hand, kicking at pebbles. But I kept going:
I was standin’ outside
Waitin’ on skis
Freezin’ my butt off
Someone help me, please!
I’ve got the freezing-my-butt-off blues.
At the word “butt,” Sasha lit up. Giggled. She was hooked. “Again, Mommy,” she said.
I sang another verse of the “Freezing-My-Butt-Off Blues,” this time with a slight variation — something about how waiting’s the worst… and when you’re in line, you wanna be first.
“Now me, Mommy,” Sasha said. She chimed in with her own verse, which I’m sure didn’t rhyme. But it didn’t matter. She was well distracted from the situation at hand — the very situation she was singing about.
Imaginative solutions require being well-rested enough to recognize that you should be using your imagination in the first place.
It’s one of my favorite, most memorable parenting experiences. The triumph was brief — it lasted maybe 15 minutes — but it was major. I had figured out a way to transform misery into fun, and Sasha had learned a new musical form as a way to creatively express her emotions — and, perhaps most important, she was entertaining me.
Imaginative solutions, though, take energy. They take headspace. They take being well-rested enough to recognize that you should be using your imagination in the first place. When you’re so sleep deprived that you can’t even remember the last time you brushed your teeth and another person starts screaming in your face, all you can think is “Nooooo! Just, no more. Stop.” You don’t have the patience to take one more step and think, “How can I make this situation more fun?”
In my early days of motherhood, that’s certainly where I was at. I wanted Sasha’s cries to magically stop. I mean, if I could soothe her, great. That was the warmest, fuzziest maternal feeling in the world. But when I was spinning my wheels and the screaming kept going, I was left with nooooo!
Once things started to normalize for me a bit and I was able to sleep four or five hours in a row, my creativity started coming back and I was able to work some sorcery into getting my kid to calm down. A lot of my wins happened in the car, which was a necessity, because screaming plus driving is a dangerous cocktail.
Before my daughter could talk, I used to battle her car screams by getting her to… well, scream. Just a different kind of scream.
See, I used to play this one song a lot. The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” but the Al Green cover version. During the bridge, I’d sing along with Al on the “I get highs” — and then, after the last one, he lets out one of his signature high-pitched aaaahs. Those I’d leave to Sasha. The song lasts only a couple minutes, so I’d put it on repeat so Sasha wouldn’t have to wait long for her next scream. We once did this the entire way from our house in New Jersey to my parents’ place in Connecticut. In traffic.
It’s a testament to how good that song is that I still like it.
In the eight years since I started my podcast, The Longest Shortest Time, I’ve learned that most parents have their own weird strategies for calming kids down. I invited listeners to share theirs with me for my book, Weird Parenting Wins. Here are some of my favorites.
When my older daughter was a newborn, she had some very cranky evenings. We lived in a condo and were conscious of how much noise she made. During one particularly loud crying spell one night, in a moment of desperation, my husband grabbed his electric toothbrush and turned it on. He started waving the toothbrush around like a half-asleep orchestra conductor. And what do you know, the baby stopped crying! In a state of sleep-deprived euphoria, we took the head off the toothbrush and nestled the contraption next to our swaddled newborn. She — and we — drifted off to sleep. But an hour later, the toothbrush ran out of batteries and the screaming began anew.
We swapped out my husband’s toothbrush for mine. And so began the nightly rotation of toothbrushes. While one was charging, the other one was somewhere within 12 inches of our beautiful baby girl. This was our new-parent “make it work” strategy for about three weeks.
Did it work for our second daughter a few years later? Not a chance.
— Sarah, River Forest, Illinois
When our daughter was about three weeks old and crying all night, my husband found that if he made a really loud snorting sound, like an obnoxious pig, close to her head, she would instantly stop crying, at least for a moment. It seemed like a primal reflex: “I have to be quiet now because there is a big weird something right there.” Sometimes, in that moment, she could start to settle down; sometimes not. We would repeat it just a couple times. If it didn’t work, we would admit defeat and go on to something else. Who knows what our neighbors thought!
— Ilana, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
My youngest, Charles, hated car rides with a fiery passion. He had the staying power to make every drive, from two minutes to two hours, absolute torture. One day, running out of songs to sing, I randomly mimicked the sound of those long, annoying car alarms, and he stopped crying. From then on, I would sing the car-alarm song whenever we were in the car. My husband even recorded me singing it on his iPhone as a memo so we could play it over the speaker and save my voice.
—Dani, San Diego, California
My four-year-old likes Star Wars, specifically Darth Vader. He also has a hard time with drop-off at school. To get him excited about my departure, he waits by the gate as I slowly drive past with all my windows down, blasting the Darth Vader theme song. This happens daily between 9:00 and 9:30 a.m., with my son and about six other preschoolers cheering me on.
— Kimberly, La Cañada Flintridge, California
When I first started taking my son shopping and he would get a little bored, I’d play Crazy Driver with our shopping cart. I’d race through an empty aisle at top speed, swerving side to side like mad, saying, “Crazy Driver! Ahhhhh!” If there was someone in the aisle, I would pretend we were still crazy but hiding the fun from other shoppers. And as soon as we were in the next empty space, we’d go “crazy” again. I love that he picked up on this pretty quickly — like together we were pulling one over on the world. As he grows older, this is expanding into our life in general. When a task isn’t pleasant but needs to get done, he knows we can act like giant goofballs together to help push through it.
—Cassandra, Rochester, Minnesota
When my kids were old enough to be mobile at the grocery store, the checkout “gauntlet” was always a challenge. All the candies were eye level for them, brightly colored and within reach! To avoid a screaming fit and get checked through quickly, I made a matching game out of the situation. Every candy bar that was in the wrong place got picked up and placed with all its “friends” in the correct spot. This approach satisfied the kids’ urge to touch the colorfully wrapped candy, and they enjoyed putting them in the right place. This continued well through their elementary years. At checkout time, I was able to tend to business while they quietly straightened up the candy displays!
—Pamela, La Porte, Indiana
I learned early on that the words “secret” or “special” could have a magical effect. If my daughter was threatening a tantrum over having to leave the library, I could promise her an exit through “the secret staircase” (the back stairs). The mystique of the “secret” was just enough distraction.
— Anne, Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts
My usually mild-mannered kiddo was having an absolute meltdown. We had tried everything to get him to calm down, with no success. Suddenly I reached down and pulled his shirt right over his head. I don’t know where the impulse came from, but it surprised everyone so soundly that it resulted in giggles and a nice quiet night after.
— Alejandra, Davison, Michigan
On our local hiking trail one day, we saw a girl who was maybe five or six with her face absolutely covered in red lipstick. Like, Joker-style, all around her mouth. As she traipsed along behind her parents, she just kept reapplying it in a big circle, content as could be.
“Looking good!” my husband said, encouragingly and with a thumbs-up. “She’s allowed to wear as much lipstick as she wants when she hikes,” the mom explained. I mentally filed that one under “For Later Use.”
— Casey, West Kill, New York