In the ongoing discussion on how different cultures use different kinds of behavior to evaluate whether or not a child is a brat, I realized that there is another kind of behavior that causes contention between the two sides of my family over whether or not I was a brat. The frequency and intensity of tantrums are often used as a measure of a bratty child, and my case is no exception.
While I threw few tantrums as a child (at least, when I was old enough to speak and remember, I have no idea how many tantrums I threw as a toddler), they all seemed to be in the presence of my American family. While they admit that I did not throw many, and never because I wanted to have chocolate for dinner or a new toy in a shop window, the few I threw are legendary and still talked about, over 20 years later. One in particular is brought up every time I visit the States, and I just so happen to remember exactly why it happened.
We were in Italy, but my aunt and uncle were visiting at the time, and I was about 5. They were chatting with my mother and, as only children do, I started to turn inwards. I had heavy duty meditative sessions as a kid, and I could go hours without speaking or needing to be entertained. During one of these times we were in a car making the 2 hour drive from the country to the city, and I was not paying any attention to them at all. Instead, I had found a coin between the car cushions, which happened to have my birthday year stamped on the front. To me, it seemed like fate.
As an only child I also got extremely attached to things. I never had siblings who stole or broke my toys, and so I gave seemingly innocuous things enormous importance. That coin, to me, was going to be my lifelong companion. It was going to represent my memory of that trip because I was so happy that day. It was made on the same year that I was born, and I’d carry it around with me until the day I died. Every time I looked at it, I would remember how I found it, and when and where and what I was doing that day. I would always have it, and look at it, and treasure it. I had no blanky, no special toy, but this coin would be that thing that I would have with me always. In the span of perhaps half an hour, I had attached a significance to that coin that was unparalleled by any other thing I owned.
My mother noticed me staring intently at this coin without speaking. She stopped the car, and asked me if she could borrow it, because she needed it. I looked up at her, and hesitated. A part of my brain said “Don’t trust her! She’s not going to give you back this coin! Don’t let it out of your sight!” So, I asked her, “will you give it back?”
“Of course I will”, she answered impatiently, “I just need it right now but then I’ll give it back. Just give me the coin I need it”. I still didn’t trust her, and I didn’t want to give her the coin. But then I told myself no, you have to trust your Mom. You’re supposed to trust your mother. She said she’d give it back, and it’s nice to share, so give her the coin and trust that she will bring it back. I handed it to her, and she got out of the car. When she got back in I asked her “OK, now where is my coin? You said you’d give it back, so can I have it now?”
“No”, she replied, “I don’t have the coin, I’ll give you another one later when I get change”. She had spent it on a telephone call. I lost my shit. I started crying desperately, uncontrollably, not only for the loss of something that I decided was so precious, but because she had broken my trust. I knew somewhere inside that she did not mean it when she said she would give it back, I knew that something was up when she asked for it, but I went against my instinct in a filial duty to trust one’s parents. I was angry with myself as much as I was angry at her.
My aunt and uncle were completely disgusted with my behavior. Nobody bothered to ask me why I was reacting that way. Nobody tried to calm me down, which made me even more upset. They simply sat there and let me tire myself out, muttering the whole time at my behavior. They simply assumed that I was throwing a tantrum because my mother told me she would pay me back later. They assumed that I had more than the barest concept of money, and so they thought that I wanted my money back now, even though I had no way of spending it now.
I have since explained what really happened to my mother, who is just exasperated that, once again, I thought she could read my mind and how could she possibly have known that I thought the coin was important? I have also explained this to my aunt and uncle, but they still bring up the tantrum every year as the best example of what an insufferable brat I was, either because they think I made up my motivations in an effort to cast myself in a better light, or because they don’t think that my explanation makes my behavior that day any less bratty.
The thing is, these kinds of misunderstandings did not come up with the other half of my family. They went through great pains to explain things to me as a child. If a cherished toy of mine was on the verge of breaking and I asked my Dad if he could fix it he would say no, but sometimes things break, and maybe we can get a new one on my birthday, and I might be sad about it, but I wouldn’t fall into a tantrum. When I was three and my crayon was about to break, my uncle told me to give it to him, he could fix it, then promptly snapped it clean in half and handed me a broken piece to keep coloring with.
My tantrums were never about not getting what I wanted, but about breaking trust, when promises were not kept or when assumptions were made that I understood what they were going to do with my things. To the Italian side of my family this is perfectly understandable, and also took great pains to never make a promise that they might for any reason not be able to keep. For the American side of my family, it was the tantrum itself that made me a brat, regardless of the reasons behind it. I was supposed to suck up my frustration, perhaps mope a bit, but never get angry at my mother over a misunderstanding, never get upset if something outside of their control made them break a promise. To me, if there is something that could happen that might make you break your promise, don’t promise, but rather say that you will try to do this or that. To them, promising just means you’ll try, and if something happens which makes them break that promise you just have to understand that, and not get upset about it.
So, in that light, where does your culture stand on tantrums, and on explaining things to children?