Family Matters

The Tantrum

"I can't, I won't, I hate it. . . . Okay, now I'm ready"

Jo Ann Miller
Magazine Issue
November/December 2009
The Tantrum

He hurls his backpack to the floor and kicks off his sneakers. His eyebrows slant down in a whimpering frown, and his bottom lip curls up. “How can I do my homework without a table?” he wails.

My grandson Elias, who’s 9, comes to our house after school every Wednesday, along with his 7-year-old sister, Hazel. Sometimes I read to them—books like James and the Giant Peach and Charlotte’s Web—even though they read as well as I do. Sometimes we play Crazy Eights or Rummikub. It’s quality time with Grandma Jo and Grandpa Lou.

The dining room table is missing because we’ve bought a new one, which won’t arrive until tomorrow. My suggestion to Elias that he use my desk or the floor is greeted with screams of protest, which soon escalate into a full-blown tantrum. Hazel quickly flees to the TV room.

“What’s the homework?” I venture. “Maybe I can help. We’ll sit together and . . . . “

Elias cuts me off with a teary diatribe. “You don’t know what the teacher wants. . . . You can’t help!”

He flings his notebook onto the couch and throws his pencil across the room.

“You never understand,” he says between sobs. “You’re mean. You’re always mean,” he adds.

Suddenly I flash back to my childhood. “Why won’t you ever listen?” I’d shout at my mother. “You’re so mean. You don’t understand!” Same words, same trembling fury, same torrent of tears.

I glance over at Elias, now curled up on the couch, weeping quietly. His chest is heaving. He wipes his runny nose on his sleeve. I’m guessing that he wants to do his homework, and he’s feeling helpless and scared that it’ll be too hard.

At this point in my own tantrums, my mother would exclaim to my father, “I think the storm is ending, Daddy.” Or worse, “Grumpy from the seven dwarfs was visiting us today, Daddy.” This would throw me into spasms of rage.

I understand Elias’s fear. I’m determined to help him beat it. I sit down close to him on the couch. He edges away. I wait. The report he has to write is about New York State, he tells me finally. He’s supposed to describe places he’s seen and which ones he likes best. A piece of cake, I think.

But not for Elias. “I don’t know what I like. . . . I won’t know what to say, . . . and a whole page, I can’t fill it!”

Familiar language: don’t, won’t, can’t. My former therapist insisted that when I used words like that, I was having a tantrum.

Elias, still weeping and sniffling, says plaintively, “I don’t know how to start.”

I ask, “How about I give you a first sentence?”

“That’s definitely not allowed!” he answers, his voice rising.

“Okay. We’ll use my first sentence just to get you started. You can change it later.”

Elias looks at me quizzically; he isn’t sure what to make of this idea. I take his notebook and write: “There are many things I like about New York State.” I hand the notebook and pencil back to him.

He stops crying and wipes his face with the tissue I give him. Within 10 minutes, he produces
a perfectly acceptable report. Turns out he likes New York City best, especially the Natural History Museum. Grandpa Steve and Grandma Karen’s house in Chatham runs a close second. The report is a page and a half long. He keeps my first sentence.

I can barely contain my happiness. I throw an arm around Elias and pour him a glass of apple juice. As he takes a sip he turns to me. “That’s the way it always is with me,” he remarks matter-of-factly. “First the tantrum, then the work.”

I howl with laughter. “I know just what you mean,” I tell him. And we give each other a high-five. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” I say, “if we could just skip the tantrum and get right to the work?”

Elias shrugs, manages a half-smile, and runs off to join his sister in the TV room.

I’m still chuckling when Lou comes into the kitchen.


Jo Ann Miller is a freelance editor and writer living in New York City, and the former editorial director of Basic Books, where she edited some of the Networker‘s leading lights. She’s the happy grandmother of four boys and one girl, ages 5 to 10.