Tantrums in the World of Trick-or-Treat

Something new for Halloween 2016: tantrums on your porch by a child who didn’t like the candy they got.

I couldn’t believe it. This little dude had a total breakdown. Anger, stomping, crying, yelling, the whole bit. His parent seemed surprisingly uninterested in dealing with it and I’ll admit it aroused more than a little self-righteousness in me. I would never permit such a thing, and if my child even began to express such behaviour…

I think it was the ingratitude of the display that bothered me most. No, actually, I can cut kids enough slack to realize they might behave a certain way at 5 or 6. It was the parent’s reaction (or lack thereof) that brought out my anger.

photo-1453745541039-d804ab0ff1adTo be honest I’m generally miffed by the way my own kids’ peers seem to feel entitled to all kinds of things. For sure there are exceptions, but a lot of kids I notice seem to be given very little apprenticeship in the cultivation and expression of gratitude. Their parents seem to be under a spell – one that causes them to believe that children deserve to be catered to by adults.

And while I think I’m working really hard to not have my own children adopt this attitude and teaching them not to expect the world to meet their every wish and desire, this little rant about tantrums and entitlement forces me to confront a hard truth about myself:

My anger about ingratitude and entitlement in some of these kids is partly because I see it in myself…and hate it.

The eminent psychologist Carl Jung taught that we dislike and rage against the things others do that we know to be true of, and loath in ourselves. Which makes me think that Jung was a real jerk. It’s an uncomfortable insight he offers though isn’t it?

Perhaps we don’t completely grow out of tantrums for not getting what we want – maybe we just learn to hide it or express it in more socially acceptable ways – forms of behaviour that don’t always seem like a tantrum at first glance.  Personally I know that while I can appear to be very grateful in that way that I’m supposed to be in adult society – I’m not always feeling it. I think I might even be fooling myself at times – convincing enough to appear thankful, but still ungrateful enough that I didn’t get what I wanted to be angry or even resentful later on.

As we mature in childhood, humans tend to learn to become more realistic; understanding that we can’t always demand that things go our way. It’s a process I’ve observed in my own children and it really does make a car ride more pleasant the better they get at it. We may even learn that venting our frustration on others doesn’t seem to increase the likelihood that we’ll get what we want, but instead alienates them and makes them less likely to cooperate, or more likely to retaliate or punish. Learning this makes dinner time better for everyone. But as we learn to become more adaptable to things falling short of expectations and sharpen our skills at manipulating people and situations to get what we want, there remains a hidden part of ourselves that stays deeply committed to asserting our will in the world and having things turn out as we hoped. We don’t so much let go of our expectations and entitled feelings, as much as we just learn to play the game better. A lot of us still, deep down, believe that we deserve to get whatever it is we want.

We adults have more sophisticated ways of dealing with things not working out the way we expect. Sometimes we try to spend money to create a solution. Sometimes we manipulate others or solicit them to fix things for us. Sometimes we adopt an identity of victimization – blaming others for our difficulties and hiding behind the perceived imbalances of the world as a justification for our own shortcomings. Sometimes we align with political perspectives and causes that give voice to our frustration and identify a group that can be blamed for us not getting what we think we deserve. It’s easy to throw stones or troll the internet with comments about the obvious public examples of this kind of grown up tantrum behaviour. But it’s much harder to acknowledge that we too engage in various forms of kicking and screaming about not getting our way in the world. Election campaigns are a real mirror into the souls of a nation’s people in which the rhetoric tells stories about who’s responsible for the problems a country is facing. I’m not sure there’s much difference between what I read about the candidates somedays on twitter, and the meltdown I witnessed tonight as I was handing out candy to trick-or-treaters.

Could it be that sometimes our anger shows us just how full of expectations we are about how the world should respond to our wishes and needs?

This anger can take the form of some very righteous and noble causes. I’ve been on the side of fighting for fairness and justice on several occasions in my life but later realized that it was at least as much about extending my own ego and getting what I want as it was for the alleged moral victory I was campaigning for. I hate to admit it, but I do not like to be told “no”. I’ve gotten really sophisticated at appearing like I’m fine with it. My meltdowns are considerably more controlled than the pint-sized spiderman who stomped around on my porch because the treats didn’t satisfy his demanding pallet. Like him, and the fifteen year-olds with no discernible costume that came later, I as a grown up sometimes approach the world like trick-or-treating. I act like I should be able to go around and collect as much free stuff as I want, exploiting the generous earth because somehow I deserve it’s finest bounty.

So, my own ingratitude “haunts” me on this, the most haunted night of the year. Perhaps these visitors who raise my ire are mere apparitions of my own greed and entitlement. It challenges me to rethink my approach. What if I saw each home that hands out candy as an expression of generosity rather than owing me quality goodies? What if I recognized that everything in my life is gift from a generous universe that owes me nothing, but provides “treats” nonetheless?

There is no “trick” in gratitude, only a recognition of the reality that life is a real treat. We may not like everything we unwrap – not everything we find when we dump out our bags on the floor will please us (such as Tootsie Rolls). But it remains true that these miniature packages of candy are expressions of someone’s generosity.

Life will not go as we want it to. For some, it will very rarely play out as they prefer. I think the often difficult but important reality for us to accept is that we all are visitors: entering into the hospitality of strangers; and making choices about how we will receive their gifts. We can choose to respond to the universe we live in with gratitude, or we can throw whatever form of tantrum we prefer. But if you’re going to make a really embarrassing scene, you might want to wear a costume.

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