Saturday, April 6, 2013

Ice Cream Tantrums

Confession: whenever families came into the ice cream store I worked at for several summers, I would play a little game inside my head called “Good Parenting, Bad Parenting.” The object was simple—identify which adults had the role of parent over their children instead of the other way around.

The dad who prompted his three-year-old to say, “Thank you” to me when I handed him his sundae? Good parenting. Start ‘em young.

The mom who said, in a whiny tone, “Stoooooop,” to her first grader when he started throwing napkins all over the floor? Bad parenting. Especially because those napkins remained on the floor when they left.

Some scenarios were gray areas, but every week or so, I’d witness a clear moment of truth: the temper tantrum. I always watched with fascination when a kid decided to throw a fit to get what she wanted. The technique of the child was interesting, of course—did he stick out his bottom lip? How good was she at the fake cry?—but the parents’ reaction was the crucial part.

Everyone within earshot was wondering the same thing: will the kid get what he wants or not?

Sometimes the parent would stand strong, saying something like, “No means no. Now, if you don’t stop crying, you won’t get any ice cream at all.” And I would silently cheer inside, faith in humanity temporarily restored.

But, most of the time, the parent would glance in all directions, turning red in the face because their children were “making a scene,” and say, “Fine. But just this once.”

As the person behind the counter, I always wanted to say to the suddenly-tear-free-and-smiling child, “No. Sorry. I’m not going to be an accessory to ruining your life. You get one scoop. Deal with it, kid.”

I never did, which is probably how I remained employed. Still, I always wished I could say that, because I hate it when kids get the idea early on in life that they should get everything they want.

Probably because I tend to believe that myself, about everything in life. That’s right. I am the spoiled kid in the ice cream shop, crying for what she wants and being almost surprised if the people around her don’t give in to her reasonable demands.

I know this because, for an assignment related to a personality test, I had to analyze how often I got frustrated. (Apparently my personality type gets frustrated a lot. I believe that type is called “human.”)

So I did. And what I found is that, most of the time, when I get frustrated it comes down to something very simple: thwarted expectations. Something is standing between me and what I want, and I don’t like that.

“The way I suggested was better—so why is no one doing it that way?” “This is inconveniencing me, and you don’t even seem to notice my great sacrifice.” “Do we have to talk about these same boring subjects again?”

I don’t usually throw a fit, but the attitude is there. The same selfishness in that sticky-fingered kid, and even their image-conscious parents, is in me. Over things that, usually, matter about as much as an extra scoop of ice cream.

Lest I be too hard on myself, not every time I’m frustrated is due to purely selfish reasons. For example, I care about loving others, so it frustrates me when, for example, people around me start gossiping. That’s not selfish, right?

Sort of. Yes, we are called to recognize right and wrong, and even confront others at times. The problem even with frustration for good reasons, though, is that it makes me put myself above others. I can’t believe they would do that, I think, as if I’ve never been guilty of the same thing.

Because I have. All the time. I am the kid who thinks she deserves the chocolate-dipped sprinkle cone, when what I really need is a very simple reminder: it’s not about me.

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