Benched: how slowing down can diffuse a tantrum

backyard bench chair contemporary
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We hadn’t even stepped inside the zoo yet, and things were already starting to go awry. My sister had checked out the wrong free pass from the library, and the ticket counter lady wouldn’t accept the whaling museum card as admission. We were looking forward to showing our three boys the frisky river otters, but they were off exhibit so their enclosure could be cleaned. We moved onto the elephants but our boys were too busy jumping off the nearby boulders to pay much attention. We checked out the new rain forest exhibit but the touch tank wasn’t open yet.

When it was time to visit the barnyard zoo animal exhibit, my sister innocently asked my youngest if he could name any farm animals. Henry answered “Sheep!” but before he could continue, his older brother cut in to add: “Pigs! Horses! Goats!” Henry’s face crumpled with the unfairness of it all. “I was going to say yat!” he wailed, and as I knelt down to try to mitigate this latest disaster, he set his lips into a deep pout and turned his back on me.

“Hey!” I said, turning him around forcefully and using my mean mommy voice. “It doesn’t matter who said what animal, keep moving.” His feet rooted in place and he moan-whined in response. I waved the others ahead and snapped at Henry to go sit on that bench to cool down. He stomped over and sat down, twisting his entire body away from me and burying his face into the top of the bench. I stood off to the side, fuming and exasperated. A miniature train passed by between us, happy parents and children riding in the back. I looked past the caboose and saw Henry still slumped and sulking. Clearly, my “get over it” approach wasn’t working; I was becoming more and more annoyed and he had completely shut down.

With a sigh, I sat on the bench next to him and as he tried to scoot farther away from me, I said: “Hey buddy, I’m sorry I was so rough with you earlier. I’m really sorry.”

He peeked at me from behind his arm. I inched closer to him on the bench. “I know you’re upset. Do you want to tell me more about why you’re upset?” He looked at me with tears in his eyes and said: “William said all the animals faster than me!”

“You’re right, he was faster than you,” I said, bringing him into my lap, “but you know what? He didn’t say all the animals. He forgot chickens! If someone is thinking faster than you, it’s okay. You can think harder. You can think of the ones he missed!”

Henry perked up. “Yeah!” he agreed. He hopped off the bench, ready to join the others.

I thought that his morning was ruined. I thought he would stay in a mood, refusing to snap out of it. And maybe he would have if I had stayed off his bench, still angry with him for his big feelings. It was only when I was willing to come alongside him and validate his feelings that he was able to move past his grumpy mood.

So often I want a quick fix; I want to say the right words to end the pouting, to solve the dispute, to make everyone fine again. What did it cost me to slow down my own agenda to deal with Henry? I missed out on seeing some pigs and horses.

The trade off was worth it!

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Sarah K. Butterfield is an author, speaker, and ministry leader who has a heart for empowering women to grow in their faith and be intentional with their time. She and her husband and two boys live in San Diego, where she writes about pursuing a deeper relationship with God in the midst of motherhood.

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