No, You're Not Raising a Serial Killer

When our kids act out, we take it as an opportunity to mold them into the good people they will become.

“What if there’s something wrong with him?”
It’s a question that’s slipped through every parent’s mind at least once. It hit us hard when our son, after being told he couldn’t have any more candy, erupted into a fit of shrieking, kicking, and trying to claw at our faces until he drew blood.
He’d never done anything like this before, and it terrified us. This wasn’t the behavior of a boy whose parents knew what they were doing. It was the type of behavior that makes people in supermarkets scoff, or teachers call home and ask just what kind of environment, exactly, are you people raising this child in?
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We spent that night watching a documentary on the childhoods of serial killers and worrying about what was going to become of our little boy. As we watched and worried, my wife and I, trying to figure whose biology was to blame, listed off every family member we could name who had ever done anything wrong.
Was this built into his DNA, we wondered? Was this proof of a deep-rooted hatred and anger hidden in our child’s core? Was this a glimpse into his violent future?
Were we bad parents?
At that moment, it seemed to us like the answer was “yes.” We had raised one of those children who terrorize their teachers when they’re young and end up on the 5 o’clock news when they’re grown. One of those children people get together and talk about, shaking their heads in disbelief and wondering just where their parents must have gone wrong.
But none of that happened.
Our son never tried to claw us again, except for one half-hearted fit a few days later that he gave up on almost immediately. He hasn’t tried violence since.
We made it clear that what he was doing was wrong. We talked to him about handling his emotions, and he got better at it. He learned to leave the room when he felt mad or to talk about how he was feeling. When he saw that it worked, he changed his behavior.
When he started school, we didn’t get any angry calls home or teachers questioning our parenting aptitude. Instead, his teacher gushed about him from the very first day. While the other kids had fought and screamed over toys, she told us, he had told them that it was nice to share and tried to give them advice on how to calm down.
It’s easy to forget, but one bad action doesn’t mean your child is heading down the wrong track. When we see other parents, we only see them at their best, and we imagine that they never went through the struggles we fight with our own kids. But the truth is that everyone’s been there, and they all worried just as much as we did.
Kids need to be bad before they can be good. It’s how they learn. They’re naturally curious. They want to know what will happen if they try something new. If I scream at Mama and Dad, they wonder, will I get my way? If I say a bad word, will I get away with it? If I hit people, will they listen to me?
Children try these things and see if they work – and they try a lot of things. It’s perfectly natural and normal for a toddler to scream and have tantrums, to hit or bite their siblings, to bully their classmates, to draw lewd images, to run away from home, or kill insects for no reason.
When our kids do these things, it can feel like we’re raising little serial killers, but it’s all a part of growing up. It’s how kids learn – by pushing boundaries and seeing what they can get away with.
When our kids act out, we take it as an opportunity to mold them into the good people they will become. It’s a chance for us to show them the difference between right and wrong, to help them understand how their actions affect other people, to teach them how to behave.
And that’s something I need to keep in mind. Because my son hasn’t reached his teenage years yet. There’s a lot of weird stuff that he’s still going to try and – as I’ll have to remind myself – that he’s going to learn from, too.

The One Thing Parents Can Do to Make Mornings Smoother, According to Science

Take a minute for connection before rattling off a list of must-dos.

[su_dropcap style=”simple” size=”5″]M[/su_dropcap]y five-year-old daughter and I tend to get into major power struggles in the morning. I make her the “wrong” breakfast. She wails like I’m torturing her as I attempt brush her tangled curls. Fresh snow covers the ground and her party shoes are the only shoes she’s willing to wear.
She’s on the floor, crying and flailing her arms before I can finish saying “snow boots.” We are running late (again) but I take a minute to lock the bathroom door, turn the vent on, and cry. Why is this is hard? What am I doing wrong?
According to experts, my error is obvious. I’ve forgotten to start the day with connection.
Instead of “making a deposit” in my child’s bank – in the form of cuddles, reading to her, or even asking how she slept, I’ve attempted to make a number of “withdrawals.” I’ve forgotten that my daughter’s brain is just not wired to accommodate that.
As Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson explain in their groundbreaking book “The Whole-Brain Child, not only are the structures of a child’s brain still forming, so are the pathways connecting them. The connections between the various parts of the brain are what allow adults to function like adults (most of the time, anyway).
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You can credit those connections every time you use logic to push through fear, or hold your tongue in a meeting with your boss when you’d rather throw the nearest object at his head. On the other hand, when you’re wondering why your kid loses his mind when you cut his carrots into slices instead of matchsticks, much of it has to do with the fact that his brain is still immature.
Though it takes at least twenty years for the brain to fully develop, there are steps parents can take to make life more bearable in the meantime. According to Siegel’s concept of interpersonal neurobiology, secure attachments in childhood facilitate the brain’s ability to function as an integrated system.
In other words, focusing on the relationship with your child, rather than all of the tasks she must complete, will not only make your mornings easier, but it will also promote your child’s optimal brain development in the long run.
One of the key take-aways from “The Whole Brain Child” is that it’s crucial to connect with your the child on an emotional level before trying to reason with him. The best way to help a kid through a tantrum is to first hug him or offer some other non-verbal sign of affection, like a loving, concerned look, a gentle pat on the arm, or a squeeze of his hand, and talk to him after.
Only after the child has calmed down enough to engage in conversation or to quietly listen, can he actually absorb anything you’re saying, whether you’re offering a pep talk, empathizing, or offering alternative solutions to the problem. According to Siegel and Payne Bryson, pausing to establish a connection serves a dual purpose. First, it strengthens the bond between you and your child, connecting you to each other. Second, this connection facilitates the building of connections between the distinct areas of the child’s brain.
Parents who struggle with mornings that devolve into a frantic race against the clock in an attempt to drop a cranky kid off at school on time with two matching shoes, often find much of the stress can be circumvented by taking a moment to connect before the storm erupts.
Clinical psychologist and parenting expert Dr. Laura Markham recommends snuggling with your kiddo for five minutes as they wake up as a way to “fill your child’s cup before the day starts, and reconnect after the separation of the night, which gives your child motivation to cooperate instead of fight with you.”
If five minutes of snuggling feels unreasonable, try two minutes, or even one. If snuggling in bed as your child rouses doesn’t fit with your routine, try something that does. It could be reading together, scratching her back, or simply holding her hand and making eye contact as you say good morning. (I’ve tried all of these).
Two little girls, kids in a candid shot having a pillow fight in bed
One friend said that even if she’s already up and dressed, she gets back into bed with her son as soon as he’s up and spends a minute or two doing a simple gratitude ritual together, where they simply say a couple things they’re thankful for.
Whatever way you choose to connect with your child as you start the day, make sure it’s part of your morning routine. According to parent educator Kelly Pfeiffer, routines and connection work best when they’re used together.
She suggests parents begin the day with some form of connection (i.e. two minutes of snuggle time) and intersperse other forms of connections throughout the morning, such as creating a silly morning song together, giving high fives, or sharing the joke of the day.
In my own quest to make mornings more bearable, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find how far even the briefest moments of connection take us, in terms of setting the tone for the day. Some mornings, there’s time for my daughter to climb into bed with me for a few minutes.
But when I’ve accidentally set my alarm for p.m., we’re running twenty minutes late, my daughter has to eat breakfast in the car, and every fiber of my being wants to bust into her room and say, “Why are you playing!? You should be dressed by now. We are running so late!”, I stop myself. Instead, I take the time to enter her room slowly, greet her with a smile, rest my hand on her shoulder, and look her in the eye while I say “Good morning. How did you sleep?” It turns out, I don’t have time not to.

Eye-Witness Reports From My Kid's Check-Out Line Meltdown

I went into that grocery store at a mere 28 years young. Sadly, I drove away at an alarming 84 years old.

I don’t know how I made it out alive.

As I sit here with my glass of much needed and well deserved wine, I feel like the old lady from “Titanic.” I went into that grocery store at a mere 28 years young. Sadly, I drove away at an alarming 84 years old.

My last memory was that I was in the checkout line. The kids were fighting over who got to put what food on the conveyor belt. I have a vivid memory of sweat beading on my upper lip as I tried to demurely redirect their behavior because, after all, we were in public. I thought, “Damn it, guys, I actually showered today. Do not make me sweat.”

Then it happened: Tucker put the pink strawberry applesauce on the belt.

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I’ve been told or have read somewhere that before a WWII bomb would hit, you could hear it whistling. My own daughter – my flesh and blood whom I carried for nine months and fed from my own body – didn’t even have the decorum or decency to at least whistle before she exploded. She sincerely must get that from her father. (If you know me and my family, you know that might be a lie. If you comment any differently, I will sic my daughter on you. And son, just for good measure. I’m traumatized, here.)

My daughter has a bright future as a soprano opera singer. Truthfully, she’s been scouted as a dog trainer because her screams can reach frequencies that only dogs can hear. Okay, that might be a lie, too, but not by much.

If I had to use my five senses to build the scene it would go something like this: I saw a pink clothed body hit the floor, a piercing wail brought the store to a halt and I heard the glass window at the front of the store shatter. I tasted salt from my dripping upper lip. I smelled fear (my own) mixed with embarrassment (also my own) and my head began to throb in pace with my pounding heart.

Then I blacked out. The following account is from eye-witness reports (again, maybe a slight fabrication):

  • my daughter rolled and kicked on the extremely dirty grocery store floor.
  • she screamed that she wanted to put more things on the conveyor belt. I gave her something off said conveyor belt. She threw it. Not back on the belt, oh, no, onto the floor, where she seemed to be making herself extremely comfortable.
  • I tried to pick her up. Her back arched, her grubby little fingers batted at me, and her feet kicked wildly. (Feet, mind you, in tennis shoes that I purchased. No decorum, this one.)
  • my son said, wide-eyed and shocked, “Mommy, everybody is staring at us. I don’t like it.”
  • I put her back down on the floor. At this point there was somebody, who clearly had no regard for his or her own well-being, in line behind us.
  • my daughter, on the floor, pushed the cart (in her seeming possession) and it rolled over my sandaled toes.
  • “Paper or plastic, ma’am?” Who has time for bagging material options?!? The bagger could’ve started throwing the groceries back on the shelves for all I cared.
  • I grabbed scanned and un-bagged items, throwing them in the cart. This part is not a lie. By this point in the game, literally everybody in the front of the store was staring at us (side note: this was one of those super Kroger’s, with clothes and stuff. So, a ton of people).
  • I tried to nonchalantly wipe the sweat off my face, hyper-aware that, again, everybody was watching.
  • I was now also hyper-aware that the bagger was not feeling quite the same sense of urgency as the scanner and I. He was smiling at me, almost robotically, putting things into bags at a snail’s pace. I think the light was on but clearly nobody was home. If somebody had been home, he’d have heard that shattering scream and starting bagging for his life.
  • time to pay. Come ON, chip reader. Then that pink-clothed terrorist took off. Away from me. Away from the entrance.
  • I curse the fact that I bought her those damned tennis shoes and ever encouraged her to run in the first place. How dare she use my kindness against me?
  • my son once again commented on all the people staring.
  • I counted to one, loud enough for her to hear.
  • Lucifer, in his hot fiery domain, laughed at me.
  • I puffed out my unsupported chest (this led to more embarrassment – of course I wouldn’t be wearing a bra when shit hits the proverbial fan) and, with a facade of confidence, calmly counted to two.
  • Lucifer once again laughed. Then he upped the ante.
  • my son pushed the cart with the *finally* bagged and paid-for groceries not even two inches in the opposite direction that my daughter had just ran.
  • in what was clearly her mission from Satan himself, my daughter decided to scream louder and to use words, finally. “MOMMY IS LEAVING! DON’T LEAVE ME, MOMMAAAAAAAAA!” and came running back.
  • an extremely generous older gentleman bagger approached us.
  • I ignored him and quickly bee-lined for that door, much to everybody’s approval.
  • he asked me if she wanted a sticker. I didn’t make eye contact with him because the salt from my sweat was now making my eyes sting. (Looking back now, I wish I hadn’t been so curt.)
  • He asked again.
  • I told him, very rudely (if that gentleman is reading this, I’m so sorry), “No, she doesn’t deserve it.”
  • and then I broke free. Sort of. She was still crying and screaming. She wanted to be in the cart, she wanted to hold her pink applesauce, she wanted to hold the oranges, she wanted to walk. But at least now we were on my turf in the open parking lot and without a captivated (albeit terrified) audience.

Now here I sit, 84 years old, working on my second glass of wine and ashamed of my behavior to a man who is probably the same age as me (again, now 84).

While this all happened, I prayed that there was some other mother in my piqued-with-interest audience who could relate, who felt sympathy, who didn’t judge.

I’m now left with a daughter who thinks she is, quite literally, a princess, or an “Evil Queen,” as she’s been saying since we’ve gotten home, vocalizing her need for a wig and other accessories so we can go incognito on any subsequent errands.

This article was previously published on Molly’s Tales from the Crib

There Are No French Fries at the Masada Visitor Center

When our family takes trips now, no matter how packed our touring schedule might be, I make sure to bring a few familiar items from home.

According to the historian Josephus, a group of 960 Jews chose to murder one another on a bleak mountaintop in the Judean Desert in Israel in the year 73 of the Common Era. In an unprecedented act of Jewish mass suicide, the last remnants of Sicarii zealots chose death rather than a life of oppression under the conquering Romans. The historical accuracy of the actions of the extremist sect of Jews remains shrouded in mystery since suicide and murder are forbidden by Jewish law. Archaeological evidence does not necessarily support all of the claims made by Josephus, a Jew who had joined ranks with the Romans and may have had his own motives for sharing this tragic story.

In spite of the haze surrounding what happened on that craggy fortress almost two thousand years ago, our family visited Masada as part of a two-week tour of Israel. Upon learning that there were no more French fries available in the air-conditioned visitor cafeteria, my then seven-year-old son promptly started crying and screaming. Jet-lagged, overheated, out of sorts, sleeping in a different bed every night or two, and not eating his requisite amount of Goldfish crackers and pizza from his favorite restaurant made my son fell apart on this nearly hundred degree day in the middle of the desert.

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“This is not the worst thing that has ever happened on top of this mountain.” I tried to reason with him but ended up sounding like a scold.

“Pull yourself together. You’ll get French fries when we get off of this God-forsaken cliff. No wonder they killed themselves.” I wasn’t helping the situation with sarcasm.

“Would you like a cold drink?” I tried a different approach: bribery. “You can have soda.”

By now a large group of French teenagers were in the cafeteria line, laughing, tossing off a few “voilas,” and looking at this spoiled American child and his ineffectual mother. I was sure they were all judging me, thinking that this was not how intelligent mothers raised a civilized “bebe” in Paris. Of course they didn’t realize that my son was crying over French fries. The irony.

While this temper tantrum was burning itself out, my nine and thirteen-year-olds were dutifully eating their cafeteria food. When my husband scooped our child off of the floor and pulled him to the side, I sat down next to my unobtrusive children and the other participants in our tour. A member of our group, who happened to be a psychiatrist, smiled at me gently and spoke up, “You know, sometimes when people are anxious, they lose their ability to function very well. Maybe your son is nervous and apprehensive today?”

“He still has to learn how to function when his surroundings are unfamiliar,” I responded to the doctor.

“It takes some of us a bit longer to do that,” he chuckled.

Our family learned a great deal on the trip to Israel. The kids realized that footprints of Jews, Arabs, Babylonians, Persians, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, Turks, Crusaders, and so many others had made impressions in the dusty soil as they walked. Like the flight path of the migratory birds traveling from Europe to Asia and back, Israel was a travel route crisscrossed by a variety of cultures for centuries. We drove in a jeep near the Syrian border, rode snorting camels, took nature hikes, erratically navigated a kayak in the Jordan River, visited with a Druze family in a village outside of Haifa, prayed at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and visited Israeli cousins for an outdoor Bar Mitzvah celebration on a hibiscus-scented night. My children gazed at me in wonder when I spoke in Hebrew, but by the end of our trip they could order ice cream and pizza in the language of the Bible.

The trip was memorable for so many reasons, but I never forgot the wise words of our traveling companion. Whenever someone in the family is having an episode of emotional turbulence, instead of jumping to resistance and embarrassment (my first impulse), I try to figure out what the deeper source of the anxiety might be. Sometimes “I must have French fries” needs to be translated as “I just want to be in a familiar surrounding with the foods and habits that make me feel safe.” Masada is an emotional place that brings up feelings of isolation, desperation, and hostility. Maybe my child absorbed some of those sentiments from our tour guide or took cues from our sad reactions. Or maybe my son really just had his heart set on eating those fries.

It’s been four years since our family took our ambitious trip. The memories linger in our scrapbooks and our minds. When our family takes trips now, no matter how packed our touring schedule might be, I make sure to bring a few familiar items from home. We also are religious about setting aside some quiet time for everyone to enjoy some salty French fries. Even when the language, food, and surroundings are completely unfamiliar, if our children feel at home in their own skin, they will embrace adventure and not shrink from scaling even the most imposing fortresses.

This article was previously published on

4 Montessori Strategies to Help Prevent a Toddler Meltdown

We’ve all seen the toddler meltdown. It’s that end-of-the-world sobbing tantrum over something so small you may not have even known what it was. A lot of the time, they don’t even know what it was.
Toddlerhood is a unique time in childhood in which the child wants so desperately to be in control, to be “big,” and yet he is still so little. The desire for independence comes out through power struggles that make no sense, and parents are simply riding this rollercoaster of toddler emotions.
Today the meltdown was over the fact that I tried to help him scoop his food with his spoon. The horror. We went from casually enjoying our meal to absolute freak-out in less than two seconds. Instant red face, tears, shaking – the whole scene.
There was no recovering from this…. dinner was over. I’m sitting at the table looking at this sweet little boy of mine thinking, it’s hard to be little. If he could articulate his feelings in that moment, I imagine it would be this:

Mommy, I want you to know that I can do lots of things for myself. I want to be independent, but I’m starting to understand that the world is a very big place and this makes me feel helpless. I get into power struggles with you because I just want to control something, even if that something is just my spoon.

I firmly believe that the “terrible twos” are terrible because two-year-olds are acquiring knowledge so quickly, they don’t know how to sort it out.
Here are some Montessori-based strategies to help children to feel competent, to foster a sense of independence so that hopefully these meltdowns become few and far between:

Give children a job

Children need to feel competent, and they love being helpers. Give them as many opportunities to do practical things for themselves as you can. Let them help you with everyday tasks. Having a sense of independence and purpose is energizing for children. For example, a perfect job for a young toddler is to put their dirty clothes in the hamper.

The child can only develop fully by means of experience in his environment.  We call such experience ‘work’. ~ Maria Montessori

Provide Child-Sized Equipment

Fostering children’s independence means making tasks and activities accessible to them and spending the extra time for children to do the tasks that adults could quickly do for them. Of course, it will take three times as long to let your child try to clean up their mess after dinner with a small broom and dustpan, but these experiences are important – it allows them to problem-solve on their own.

Any child who is self-sufficient, who can tie his shoes, dress or undress himself, reflects in his joy and sense of achievement the image of human dignity which is derived from a sense of independence. ~ Maria Montessori

Give choices

Providing young children with limited choices helps them to feel more in control of the situation. If you want your child to put on their socks, you might ask, “Do you want to put on your red socks or blue socks?” Putting on the socks is not a choice, but the child has control over which ones they want. By giving choices, we gradually pass the decision-making on to the child, until they are capable of doing so on their own.

“The child’s development follows a path of successive stages of independence, and our knowledge of this must guide us in our behavior towards him. We have to help the child to act, will and think for himself.” ~ Maria Montessori

Say yes as often as you can

When children have control over small aspects of their day, and you are able to say yes to the little requests – rainboots in 80-degree weather? Sure, why not? – it makes it easier when adults have to say no. Letting children make meaningful choices tells them that you value their opinion and input.

The essence of independence is to be able to do something for one’s self. Adults work to finish a task, but the child works in order to grow and is working to create the adult, the person that is to be. Such experience is not just play… it is work he must do in order to grow up. ~ Maria Montessori


Here’s the Recipe For Preventing Witching Hour Meltdowns

The hour between coming home and getting dinner on the table can be a nightmare for a lot of families. But it doesn’t have to be.

We’ve all been there. It’s about 5 p.m. and you’ve just gotten home from work with your kids in tow after a long day at school or daycare or other activities. You desperately need to make dinner but your children are winding into a frenzy.

They’re hungry, they’re tired, and they want your attention – you just hope you won’t chop your finger instead of the carrots as you look up for the 18th time to tell your preschooler not to bite her brother even though he pushed her off the chair. Tantrums and tears ensue.

This, my fellow parents, is the witching hour. The details of your story may vary, but I’m willing to bet you’ve been there.

I’ve been known to resort to screen time or to yell distracted (and usually useless) directions at my kids during the witching hour. Both of these solutions are more likely to exacerbate the bad behavior than solve it, and I know it. But we’re just human, right? 

When I’m in better form, I remember some of the strategies that lead to happier, and less chaotic, early evening experiences. Strategies that have worked for us and, not surprisingly, seem to ring true with parenting experts and researchers.

Attend to your children’s need to connect

Many parenting experts agree that emotional connections between children and their parents are essential for creating positive relationships; there is also evidence that strong relationships lead to children actually wanting to listen to and please their parents. Lack of a strong connection can be a prime explanation for children who act out or meltdown.

It should come as no surprise, then, that kids want to connect with their parents after a long day of separation. If we withhold that connection while we try to get dinner made (or the groceries put away, or the house cleaned) we can cause our children to act out in all sorts of ways.

Older kids may actually tell you that they want some time with you by begging for you to play a game or read a book, but younger children may not have the words to explain. In either case, spending 15 minutes of dedicated time with our children BEFORE we try to “get stuff done” is a great way to meet their needs.

Rebecca Eanes describes this, in relation to a term that Dr. John Gottman coined, as “turning toward” our children’s bids for attention. Even if we can’t play with a child right away, we can still “turn toward them” by showing them that we hear and understand their request, and will try to find a way to fulfill it once we are able to stop what we’re currently doing.

I’ve found that once I do give my children some of the attention that they need – in a mindful, intentional way – when I make dinner my children are more likely to happily entertain themselves, or engage with me calmly while I work.

I‘ve also had success inviting my child to join me in the kitchen after our time together. I try to ask them about their day using specific questions that elicit stories, or get them stirring one of the dishes. I’ve frequently noticed that my son offers to help out more after I’ve paid significant attention to his needs.

Attend to your children’s hunger (strategically)

The longer our children have to wait to eat, the more likely they are to be hungry. Hungry kids can turn “hangry” in a hurry. Telling our children that dinner will be ready in a half-hour and that they’ll have to wait has never been that successful in our case.

That said, giving your child “snack food” right before dinner is also a pretty good recipe for poor eating at dinner. Ellyn Satter, founder of the Satter Feeding Dynamics Model, says that parents should, “do the what, when, and where of feeding; other family members do the how much and whether of eating.” 

She encourages family meals, but she also recognizes that kids may come home from school completely famished and not be able to make it to dinner. This is where Satter’s “sit down snack” idea comes into play. If you are going to give your child a snack, they should sit down to eat it rather than eating on the fly while they play. The food should be high quality and well-rounded, and it should be timed long enough before the next meal so as not to mess up that meal.

Drawing on these principles, I’ve found success giving my children a sit down snack right when we come home – something that I consider healthy and almost a “phase one” of dinner. I lean toward fruits and vegetables when I can, adding a little bit of cheese or hummus for protein. 

Providing this snack also means that I can calm down a bit on the rush to get dinner on the table since they won’t be hungry again right away. And, this way, we’ve also created time for more connection. When dinner time does come around, I keep their servings modest knowing that they’ve eaten a healthy snack and may not be ravenous at dinner time, which is just fine with me. They can ask for more if they are still hungry.

Make meal prep easier by planning ahead

So you’ve attended to your child’s needs and now you’re reasonably free to prepare dinner. What are you going to make? I hate that feeling of staring into the fridge trying to see if we have anything decent I can pull together in a reasonable amount of time. That’s why one of the most valuable routines (that my husband and I manage to stick to about 25 percent of the time) is planning a week’s worth of meals on Saturday or Sunday.

In addition to the bonus of simply knowing what you’re going to cook, there are couple of added bonuses to this planning thing. For instance, you can shop for what you need on the weekend and know that you have it on hand. You can make those recipes you keep bookmarking but never get around to. You can double dip on a few ingredients across multiple meals (a big batch of black beans or a pulled pork). And you can plan even easier nights by working leftovers into the picture. As an example, check out this menu that we planned for meat free week this summer.

Research has also shown that stress around meal planning can have a negative impact on older children’s willingness to participate in family meals. Conversely, parents (mothers, in this research) who value family meals and plan ahead so that they are regularly scheduled are more likely to have children who participate. And family meals are connected to all sorts of positive outcomes for children and families (see The Family Dinner Project).

Planning ahead helps us feel less frenzied and more prepared, while also resulting in higher quality meals that we’re all more likely to enjoy together. 

I can’t pretend that every evening in our household is free from tantrums and meltdowns, but I can say that I’ve tried these strategies with great success. I only wish I remembered to use them more often!

Sometimes Mommy Yells: The Truth About Losing It

The days can be long. The kids, challenging. And sometimes, despite our best efforts, we can’t keep it together. But there’s always a chance to try again.

My daughter’s defiance simmers between us, and irritation creeps up my spine. She is sitting on the floor of our kitchen, having a tea party with her Elsa doll and ignoring my pleas to eat dinner.

The kitchen is stuffy, a combination of the warm temperatures outside and the oven being on for an hour. Sweat trickles down my temples, my shirt sticks to my back and my feet ache from being on them all day.

I dig deep to find patience and offer a compromise, “I know you’re in the middle of a game with Elsa, but it’s late and you need to come to the table for dinner. You’ll finish playing after you eat.”

She sighs, exasperated by my interruptions. “Fine, Mom,” she relents.

After arranging her doll to sit next to her, she deposits herself in a wooden kitchen chair in front of her lukewarm dinner. I try to ignore the glint in her eyes and hope that she’ll settle down and eat.

When I turn my back to wash the dishes in the sink, she giggles while throwing her food onto the floor. “Mommy look!” she taunts as she drops a cucumber into her water. The dark hardwood is littered with small pieces of chicken and broccoli. Water pools in the middle of her brown placemat, slowly inching its way towards the edge of the table.

“Why are you throwing your dinner on the floor?” I ask calmly. “Please stop doing that and act like a big girl. You’re three now.” She ignores the bait that I dangle in front of her, acknowledging her recent birthday. Sometimes the fact that she’s three years old influences her behavior. Tonight, it does not.

“Look Mommy, I’m eating Silly Putty instead of dinner!” She shrieks with laughter while putting Silly Putty on her fork and into her mouth. When I rush to her and try to pry it out of her lips, she pulls my hair, sending pain through my scalp. Anger rises through my body and spills out of my mouth.

I’m tired from a day of chasing after her, carrying her, looking for her toys, and begging her to eat. My bones ache with the weariness from being on since 7 A.M., I am out of patience and I cannot help myself.

I yell at her.

“Why won’t you eat this dinner that I cooked just for you? Is it really so hard to sit in a chair for 10 minutes? How could you pull my hair when you know how much it hurts?” My voice rises with each question. I speak quickly, not allowing her the chance to answer.

She looks down at her plate and continues to play with her food. Anger moves through my body, tingling my fingertips until I snap. I threaten to take away TV, to take away dessert, to not go to the park the next morning. My voice is deafening but I cannot stop.

The silence is heavy in the kitchen when I finish my tirade. Tears fall down her flushed cheeks and my heart sinks as I watch her. Did I really just scream at her because she didn’t want to eat dinner? I ask myself. My face is hot with embarrassment and I taste regret, bitter in my mouth. I close my eyes and count to ten, willing my heartbeat to slow down and my breathing to deepen.

I am horrified at the angry words that came out of my mouth, but desperate for the day to end. There is nothing more I want than a hot shower and to lay under the soft covers of my bed, but this seems impossibly far away.

When I open my eyes, I see her hunched in the wooden kitchen chair, looking at me with a hurt expression. My heart cracks in my chest and I am overcome with the desire to hold her.

I scoop her up and we sink into the sofa. A plastic princess pushes into my back, a remnant from her earlier playtime, but I don’t want to move. Instead, I pull her deeper onto my lap, and lean onto the brown leather.

“I’m sorry for yelling,” I whisper into her ear. “I always love you, even if I sometimes yell.”

She turns her small face up to mine, and our eyes meet. “Mommy, please don’t yell like that again,” she asks. Her voice cracks.

I nod. “I’ll try my best,” I answer, “but I need you to try to listen to me and show me what a big girl you are. And no more pulling Mommy’s hair and throwing food.” She nods.

She pushes her head into my shoulder, burying her face into my shirt, and we sit there, intertwined. I wrap my arms around her and pull her closer to me.

Our promises float in the air around us, between us. I wonder if we will be able to keep them. I wonder how I will find the patience to mother her through the challenges of being three.

My struggles have less to do with her behavior and more to do with my own reactions. Every time I lose my temper and yell, the words pouring out of my mouth twist my heart. I can’t believe I am saying these things to her when all I want to do is hold her in my lap, feel her skin against mine, and breathe in her scent.

For me, the biggest challenge is finding my daughter’s big eyes in the midst of the chaos and anger and holding her gaze. I need her to know I love her even when I lose my patience, even when I desperately need a break, even when I am so angry at her defiance that it is difficult for me to stay in the room.

After the storm, I hold her closer to me and whisper phrases of love into her small ear:

I am sorry I yelled, but you made me angry.

I am always right here for you, even when I am upset.

I love you sweet girl.

We are both spent and the hurt feelings linger in the air. I give up on dinner. “Ready for bed?” I ask after a few minutes. She nods, and we walk upstairs hand in hand, leaving the messy kitchen behind.

Once I tuck her in under her princess blanket, I apologize again for the words I said and how I raised my voice, but she has already forgiven me.

“I love you, Mommy,” she whispers and reaches her arms out. I gratefully fall into them.

I lay on the soft, carpeted floor next to her toddler bed, my hand wrapped around hers. “Today was a rough day for us. I’ll try to be more patient tomorrow and I know we’ll have a better day,” I suggest.

“Ok Mommy,” she responds, sounding hopeful. We rest side by side in silence. I close my eyes, looking for patience and empathy within.

I don’t know if this will be enough, but it’s all I can do for my daughter: to try to have better days while mothering through the mayhem of three.

5 Ways Parents Ensure Their Child’s Tantrum Is a Raging Success

Sometimes the tactics we deploy to stop a tantrum do nothing except fuel the fire.

There may or may not have been a time when informing my son we have to leave his friend’s house was like telling him that all of his toys had been burned and the ashes thrown into the sea.

The tantrum session that ensued had a Hulk-like effect on me, except instead of turning into a raging green monster, I turned into a sweaty WWE wrestler. With eyes bulging and teeth bared, I picked him up and carried him to the car in a full body bind.

That sure was fun, trying to thank my friends for hosting while being inadvertently kicked in the groin.

But that’s all hypothetical, right? None of that stuff actually happened. I mean, our children don’t melt down and throw tantrums like those delinquent children we see in public. We sat our three-year-olds down and explained to them in great detail how tantrums just aren’t a healthy way to deal with their frustration. And they got it. Sure, they might not have looked like they understood even a little bit of what we were telling them, but we know that deep down, they got it.

But all those other parents out there, boy are they really making a mess of things. These are the things I see all those other parents trying against their tantruming children that never seem to work: 

Ignoring the raging monster

There’s a difference between intentionally ignoring unhealthy attention-seeking behavior and letting a kid Hulk an entire aisle of the toy section during his tantrum, throwing things down and generally sowing mayhem amongst the other patrons.

The proper protocol for ignoring unhealthy behavior is to ignore it unless said behavior is about to blow something or someone up.


These parents aren’t afraid in the slightest to match their child’s emotion with emotion. If their child decides that screaming is an okay way to deal with getting what they want, then, by God, it’s okay for them, too. These red-faced parents are often seen bent over their child in the toy aisle with a finger pointed. “Stand up RIGHT NOW and stop crying.” These words are usually accompanied by a swat to the bottom. 

The truth is, we can’t expect our children to keep their cool if we can’t keep ours.

Pleading with the beast

You’re reaching for the big red button. It’s right in front of you and you see a little label just below the big red button that says, “Press this and all of your dreams will come true.” You lick your lips and reach out for it. Just as your finger touches the button, a man in a white lab coat sitting next to you says “Hey. Would you mind not pressing that big red button, please?”

What are you going to do? I’ll tell you what you’re going to do; you’re going to press that damn button. This exact scenario is what plays out every time our children go into a raging tantrum and we calmly plead with them to be reasonable. “Johnny, please don’t do this today.”

The pleading strategy may work on the compliant type, however, if your child is strong-willed, you can forget about it. Impose consequences and follow through with them.

The Princess Bribe

I bribe my children from time to time, and it works. But this one has to be on this list because I know that bribing is not a long-term solution. When my child grows up, I don’t want him to need a carrot in order to discipline himself to do something. That being said, you better believe I will be handing my kids candy when we’re sitting on a plane, at a wedding, etc.

Overpowering with encouraging remarks

These parents have usually tried a number of other strategies to get control of their tantruming child. This is usually number three or four on the list of things to try and it goes something like this:

*Child screams.*

Parent: “We’re going to be so happy and thankful that we have so many toys at home. Yayyy!”

*Child keeps screaming.*

There is a time and place to redirect your child, but not your main strategy for dealing with tantrums. 

To the Well-Meaning Strangers When My Son is Behaving Badly

When a toddler is having a public meltdown the input of strangers is pretty much the last thing any mom is looking for.

Dear Strangers,
What is it about seeing a woman with a small child that makes people, especially older people, think that they can say whatever they want?

The amount of unsolicited advice and comments that I’ve received from strangers as a parent is overwhelming.  If I wanted or needed advice, I’d ask for it. However, there’s a good chance that I know my kid better than you, especially when he’s upset about something. I appreciate your concern, but trust me when I say that I can handle it.

We’ve never been apart for more than a few hours since he was born and he’s almost three years old. If I think something is actually wrong with him, of course I will address it. But most of the time, he’s upset over not getting his way.

The first time a stranger tried to give me advice my son couldn’t have been more than a month old. A friend and I had taken him out shopping. Because we had driven in her car it was easier to keep him in his car seat and put it in the stroller rather than wear him like I normally did. He was pissed because he hated his car seat so he fussed and cried while we shopped. An older woman clucked at me while she followed alongside the stroller.

“Aw, what’s wrong sweetie? He wants his mommy,” she offered.

I smiled politely.

“He’s okay; he doesn’t like the car seat.” I stuck my face in front of his. He settled down for a second. The woman smiled smugly.

“I told you.”

She walked away and I fumed.

It took a lot of willpower to not get nasty with her. I know that she meant well but as a new mother I was especially sensitive. And she could have approached me a little differently.    

Tact is something that is severely lacking in today’s society. I wouldn’t be so annoyed if you first asked me if I needed help. But often people start in with their diagnosis of what could possibly be making my kid scream like a banshee. They don’t even say hello first!

One day we were traveling by ferry and I wouldn’t let him out of his stroller to walk around like I normally do. He was upset but I offered his toys and he was placated for the moment. When he decided to throw a train across the aisle I took the trains and put them away. This led to a total meltdown. I sat quietly watching, not willing to engage with him while he was clearly being unreasonable.

“He’s probably tired. Do you need a nap cutie? Why are you crying?” the woman sitting across from us asked. My son just looked at her and continued to wail. She looked at me expectantly.

“He’s just mad because I took away his toys.” I explained.

That’s another thing. I shouldn’t have to justify anything to anyone. I don’t owe anyone any explanation for my inactivity. I think that people take my inactivity as complacency in his “bad” behavior. I’m not going to try and discipline or deal with him mid-tantrum. He is not hearing what I’m saying. He’s not hearing what anyone is saying. So please don’t talk to him.

Also, please refrain from commenting on my kid’s behavior, especially using the phrases “not cool,” “not okay,” or “fresh.” He knows that what he’s doing is wrong. He doesn’t care about what you think of his actions. He’s two. He’s irrational. He doesn’t have the coping skills. That’s why I’m ignoring him.

Your comments are only amping him up which means that it’ll take me that much longer to calm him down. I know it’s killing you not to say anything but please ignore him. He’s doing it for attention and even if you’re scolding him it’s still attention.

Once after he angrily tried to throw himself backward in his stroller (which he is prone to do during a tantrum,) a man sitting near us on the subway tried to engage with him.

“Hey buddy, that’s not cool. You gotta listen to your mommy.” my son cried harder.

“Thank you but he’s okay. The more you engage him the worse it is. He feeds off the attention.” I pleaded. My pleas fell on deaf ears. I have never been so relieved to see someone get off the subway.

So I’ve said all of that to say this: Please, please think before you speak. I do sincerely know that you mean well but consider how you’re going to approach before you interject your opinion. A mother may look like she is struggling but maybe she isn’t.

I understand if you can’t ignore it but instead of just assuming, say hi, ask if everything is okay and if she needs help before offering advice. Sometimes your comments will do more harm than good. And fellow moms, don’t be afraid to offer a nod or sympathetic smile. We’re all in this together.


The mom of that kid