Tantrums or Toys? Expert advice

(Editor's note: Judy Lyden has worked with very young children for over thirty years. She's been a preschool teacher for over twenty. She co-owns the Garden School, an early childhood academic center, with Edith St. Louis. )

Kelly and Tim are a lovely young couple with two beautiful children. One of the things that makes this young family especially nice is the behavior of their children.  When Tim and Kelly go someplace, they can take their children along knowing that their children won't disrupt others or play the obnoxious card.

But Kelly says it wasn't always that way.  There was a time when their daughter, Madison, at age three, was a tantrum thrower and as Kelly describes her, a beast.  She would throw her hands up in the air and collapse to the ground sobbing.  Her behavior would get beyond comprehension and for the finale the shower of tears rained over what had become a major meltdown.

"We tried everything," says Kelly.  Then they decided that her behavior did not go together with all the things that she enjoyed in her little world, so they decided to withdraw her toys and her games and the things she loved to do and show her that tantrums and toys did not go together.

Kelly and Tim slowly emptied her room of every single toy, every single activity down to a bed, a dresser, and one doll to sleep with.  Everything went into their garage and was off limits to the child.

Madison was at first extremely upset with Tim and Kelly but they discussed with her about how her behavior was the cause of such punishment.  She calmed down and lived without the privileges for a couple of days before she realized that good behavior earned back her toys.

If her behavior was good for a day, she could earn a toy back.  If she threw a tantrum, she would lose a toy.  It was that simple.  The child was able, by her own choices, to either enjoy what her parents had graciously given her, or forfeit her luxuries in favor of a tantrum.

Now what does this teach a child?  Critics would say that this was cruel and unusual punishment, and that it won't work because such a punishment holds a child to a level of competence she doesn't understand.

On the other hand, Kelly is a teacher and Tim has counseling training, and in this very proactive and non-violent scheme, they have taught Madison to control her temper for her own sake.  "If you want your toys, you have to make good choices."

This wonderful educational scheme allowed Madison to make choices and see the result.  She traded up - the tantrums for a beautiful life.  The training is proactive because it eliminated temptations, excuses, and interference.  It simply and completely said, "Here's the deal.  You live up to your end of the bargain, and so will we one toy at a time."

What Madison learned is that's the way life is.  If you play by the rules, you get the life rewards of doing well.  If you let others always take the blame, take the brunt of your temper; nobody will want to play with you.

And what is the result of this three years later?  At the time, it took Madison four months to earn all her toys back.  Because of this loving training engineered by her parents, she has become a workhorse.  Madison works hard at everything she does.  She loves being at big school now, and she loves the challenges in front of her, and at the same time, her parents are very proud of their beautifully behaved young lady.