Q: My 4-year-old stepson still has the occasional tantrum in response to being told that he can't have or do something. His mother, who has primary custody (he's with us two days a week, generally), is very permissive, so he comes by this "honestly." When he throws a tantrum, we put him in his "tantrum place," which is a chair in the dining room. That causes his tantrum to get worse, actually, and it sometimes takes him 30 minutes or more to calm himself down to where he can get out of the chair. Is there anything we can do to help him get control of himself or should we just ignore it and carry on? Four years old is too old for tantrums, correct?
A: You are absolutely correct, but you're living in the past (but then, so am I). Up until fairly recently, a child was still throwing tantrums after his or her third birthday was rare. It has only been within the last two generations that behaviors characteristic of (and once successfully confined to) the so-called "terrible twos" -- tantrums, belligerent defiance, persistent impulsivity, separation anxiety -- have continued to occur past toddlerhood, oftentimes well past. I am convinced that this is the result of sea changes in childrearing practice that have taken place during that time.
Specifically, instead of removing children from the center of parental attention between their second and third birthdays, the overwhelming majority of today's parents are keeping their kids at the center of attention in perpetuity. Those parents also tend to engage in a tremendous amount of enabling -- simply stated, doing for children what they are capable of doing for themselves, however imperfectly. The inevitable result is large numbers of perpetually dependent children don't cope well with the realities of life, including the Mick Jagger Principle -- you can't always get what you want.
This is an unhealthy state of affairs for those children, who we now know are having a great deal of problems growing up and accepting full responsibility for themselves. Consequently, this is an unhealthy state of affairs for America. I'm not alone in thinking that America's childrearing problems are as serious as its current economic difficulties, every bit as threatening to our continued viability.
Your stepson is a victim, in effect. But his mother's not evil -- far from it. She's a victim too, of the tremendous peer pressure on today's moms to enter into co-dependent relationships with their kids (and be constantly stressed, anxious, and guilt-ridden as a consequence). The "Good Mommy" standard that has arisen since the 1960s has stripped women of permission to be righteous authority figures in their children's lives. It has transformed the "liberated" woman into a certified Milquetoast Mom.
Concerning your stepson's tantrums, you're doing precisely what I recommend. Given that you have only 30 percent custody, he's taking two steps forward when he's with you and then at least one step backward when he's back with his enabler-in-chief. In time, you will cure him of what I prefer to call "high self-esteem seizures" at your house, but this is going to be an uphill battle. Stay the course. Your resolve will eventually pay off.
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents' questions on his website at www.rosemond.com