Tuesday, August 08, 2017

The Ethical Significance of Toddler Tantrums (guest post by Henry Shevlin)

guest post by
Henry Shevlin

As any parent can readily testify, little kids get upset. A lot. Sometimes it’s for broadly comprehensible stuff - because they have to go to bed or to daycare, for example. Sometimes it’s for more bizarre and idiosyncratic reasons – because their banana has broken, perhaps, or because the Velcro on their shoes makes a funny noise.

For most parents, these episodes are regrettable, exasperating, and occasionally, a little funny. We rarely if ever consider them tragic or of serious moral consequence. We certainly feel some empathy for our children’s intense anger, sadness, or frustration, but we generally don’t make a huge deal about these episodes. That’s not because we don’t care about toddlers, of course – if they were sick or in pain we’d be really concerned. But we usually treat these intense emotional outbursts as just a part of growing up.

Nonetheless, I think if we saw an adult undergoing extremes of negative emotion of the kind that toddlers go through on a daily or weekly basis, we’d be pretty affected by it, and regard it as something to be taken seriously. Imagine you’d visited a friend for dinner, and upon announcing you were leaving, he broke down in floods of tears, beating on the ground and begging you not to go. Most of us wouldn’t think twice about sticking around until he felt better. Yet when a toddler pulls the same move (say, when we’re dropping them off with a grandparent), most parents remained, if not unmoved, then at least resolute.

What’s the difference between our reactions in these cases? In large part, I think it’s because we assume that when adults get upset, they have good reasons for it – if an adult friend starts sobbing uncontrollably, then our first thought is going to be that they’re facing real problems. For a toddler, by contrast – well, they can get upset about almost anything.

This makes a fair amount of sense as far as it goes. But it also seems to require that our moral reactions to apparent distress should be sensitive not just to the degree of unhappiness involved, but the reasons for it. In other words, we’re not discounting toddler tantrums because we think little kids aren’t genuinely upset, or are faking, but because the tantrums aren’t reflective of any concerns worth taking too seriously.

Interestingly, this idea seems at least prima facie in tension with some major philosophical accounts of happiness and well-being, notably like hedonism or desire satisfaction theory. By the lights of these approaches, it’s hard to see why toddler emotions and desires shouldn’t be taken just as seriously as adult ones. These episodes do seem like bona fide intensely negative experiences, so for utilitarians, every toddler could turn out to be a kind of negative utility monster! Similarly, if we adopt a form of consequentialism that aims at maximizing the number of satisfied desires, toddlers might be an outsize presence – as indicated by their tantrums, they have a lot of seemingly big, powerful, intense desires all the time (for, e.g., a Kinder Egg, another episode of Ben and Holly, or that one toy their older sibling is playing with).

One possibility I haven’t so far discussed is the idea that toddlers’ emotional behavior might be deceptive: perhaps the wailing toddler, contrary to appearances, is only mildly peeved that a sticker peeled off his toy. There may be something to this idea: certainly, toddlers have very poor inhibitory control, so we might naturally expect them to be more demonstrative about negative emotions than adults. That said, I find it hard to believe that toddlers really aren’t all that bothered by whatever it is that’s caused their latest tantrum. As much as I may be annoyed at having to leave a party early, for example, it’s almost inconceivable to me that it could ever trigger floods of tears and wailing, no matter how badly my inhibitory control had been impaired by the host’s martinis. (Nonetheless, I’d grant this is an area where psychology or neuroscience could be potentially informative, so that we might gain evidence that toddlers’ apparent distress behavior was misleading).

But if we do grant that toddlers really get very upset all the time, is it a serious moral problem? Or just an argument against theories that take things like emotions and desires to be morally significant in their own right, without being justified by good reasons? As someone sympathetic to both hedonism about well-being and utilitarianism as a normative ethical theory, I’m not sure what to think. Certainly, it’s made me consider whether, as a parent, I should take my son’s tantrums more seriously. For example, if we’re at the park, and I know he’ll have a tantrum if we leave early, should I prioritize his emotions above, e.g., my desire to get home and grade student papers? Perhaps you’ll think that in reacting like this, I’m just being overly sentimental or sappy – come on, what could be more normal than toddler tantrums! – but it’s worth being conscious of the fact that previous societies normalized ways of treating children that we nowadays would regard as brutal.

There’s also, of course, the developmental question: toddlers aren’t stupid, and if they realize that we’ll do anything to avoid them having tantrums, then they’ll exploit that to their own (dis)advantage. Learning that you can’t always get what you want is certainly part of growing up. But thinking about this issue has certainly made me take another look at how I think about and respond to my son’s outbursts, even if I can’t fix his broken bananas.

Note: this blogpost is an extended exploration of ideas I earlier discussed here.

[image: Angelina Koh]


Anonymous said...

because our response to toddler tantrums has an educational role. helping them cope with difficult feelings is vital to their developing capacity for emotional regulation. the strategies they acquire as preschooler will help or hinder then afterwards. So supporting them through a tantrum while remaining calm yourself is actually quite vital for them. Whereas we are not responsible for helping adults to emotionally regulate even if we have some kind duty to respond to distress.

Chris said...

One difference between adults and toddlers is that toddlers recover from their distress much quicker and don't seem to show any signs of lasting harm in the kinds of cases you mention. For example, if an adult threw a tantrum because they [I think we should use 'they' as a singular gender neutral pronoun] had to leave the party early, this would be an indication that something is seriously wrong. Perhaps they have other more significant events causing them distress. Perhaps they have some sort of mental illness. On the other hand, if a toddler throws a tantrum in that situation, this is not an indicator of any further problem and the child will rather quickly get over it. This gives us a reason to take the toddler's tantrum less seriously, even from a purely hedonistic perspective.

Arnold said...

Great...this grandfather's take, with two toddlers 4 hrs a day--4 days a week...I see the tantrum and myself--my attention has been attracted---they'er in the moment--can I be in the moment too...shouldn't I know what to do...they seem to get some energy from tantrums, perhaps I can get some energy too--what is my attitude...

Without my wife in charge, taking care of my grandchildren would not be any fun...thanks...

Anonymous said...

Agree with previous comments. If our friend sobs every time we leave their house, by the 3rd or 4th time we're not taking it anywhere near as seriously. Sobbing is interpreted as a sign of some serious problems. As the linked website amply demonstrates, that's often not the correct conclusion with toddler tantrums.

Toddlers need boundaries and without gentle pushback from parents, will find it difficult to self assess.

Unknown said...

How do you reconcile this with cognitive development? Because for all we know, babies don't even recognize the mind body problem. Are they aware that they exist?

wesley said...

Thanks for posting more about this topic. I'm bumping on two features of the discussion. First, the problem is predicated on us worrying much more about adults than kids' emotions. But we worry a ton about our kids' emotions and would also definitely disregard adults' if they behaved as kids do. Second, it seems like one large difference is that very young children are not yet full agents and parental responses are partly a matter of well, parenting, and education. So it's hard for me to see too much theoretical mileage about this for theories that involve full agents, except to say that theories should include something about development.

Phil H said...

Awesome. This is one of those areas where I think attitudes are changing really fast, as you allude at the end of the piece. In general, most societies seem to be moving towards greater moral concern for the subjective well-being of children. I can imagine that in 100 years' time, we'll be making allowances for children's emotions that today would be regarded as crazy.

One reason this change is happening may be a conflation or confusion of physical well-being and emotional well-being. As parents we regard our children's physical well-being as very much our concern, and that conditions the level to which we intervene in their lives. To give a personal example: I require my kids to do what I say instantly when I use a certain tone of voice. The reason for this is so that I can stop them if they're ever getting too close to a busy road. But having taken this authority over them, I also use it (abuse it, I suppose) in other areas, including emotional control. Now, as the world becomes a safer place (e.g. self-driving cars that won't ever hit a human being), the need for physical controls is lessening. And because human relationships tend to be holistic rather than compartmented, I predict that that will lead to parents intervening less in their children's emotional lives.

On the other hand, there is a counter-trend, in the form of self-help and emotional education. It seems to me (though I may be suffering from the recency fallacy) that we are increasingly interested in educating and training our own emotions and character. If that spills over significantly into childcare, then perhaps parents and other adults will end up intervening more in children's emotions, but in an educational way, rather than a controlling way. (I count ignoring toddler tantrums as a form of emotional control - we force the toddler to not receive the normal care due to an unhappy person and/or continue doing the thing that she doesn't want to do.)

Callan S. said...

Not sure why the adult crying is treated as having the same emotional intensity. Consider an adult who stubs their toe - maybe they bite their lip, while the child who does the same is crying loudly.

It takes a lot more emotional intensity to make an adult give the same display behavior as a child. Why treat the displayed intensity as the only applicable factor?

howard b said...

Dear Professor:

You're drifting in the waters chartered by Freud long ago whatever the ultimate worth of his system.
Because you grew up that kind of consciousness was repressed or paved over. Rather than trying to philosophize the better thing to do is reminisce and realize you were that strange science fiction creature a human child