Dear Bess and Bubby

Advice for parents on how to raise a peaceful child in a violent world

Dear Bess and Bubby,

I am at the end of my rope, so I hope you can help me. My three year old is having temper tantrums. Nothing I do seems to help — I ignore her, I hold and cuddle her, I tell her she won’t get to watch television, I tell her she’s too old for this, all without success. She yells, throws herself on the ground, kicks and screams. I am about ready to go out of my mind. Any suggestions? — Tired out in Texas.

Dear Tired Out,

Before you address how to deal with your daughter’s tantrums, let’s look at the possible causes. Is there a pattern? Do they seem to happen at the same time every day? After eating certain foods? Are certain events (bedtime, Mommy leaving for work, etc.) triggering them? If you can find such a pattern, you might be able to head off the tantrums by changing the external conditions.

There are basically two approaches to responding to tantrums. One is when the behavior is a power play, and your daughter is using her behavior to command your attention or otherwise get what she wants. In this approach, you would walk away and gently say, “I’ll be happy to talk with you when you’re ready. I’ll be right here in the next room.” Then say no more until she stops screaming. Or give her the same message without leaving the room, but in any case do not engage — by reacting, judging, threatening, blaming, attempting to “fix” her, or in any other way. Let her know that you are there for her, but not as a participant in a power struggle.

At other times it’s important to help your child feel safe when she’s out of control. This could lead to cuddling, perhaps whispering some gentle love words in her ear. Then you might attempt to redirect her energy into words. “It’s hard to understand what you want when you’re screaming. I can hear you better when you say more quietly what you need right now. Can you calm down so you can tell me what’s going on?” Then stay with her — without restraining her — until she does get quieter.

At a time when she is calm, you might want to raise the issue of the tantrums as a mystery you’d like her help in solving. The basic idea is to help her find words for her inner experience, and then figure out the most effective ways to communicate that experience to you. You will have to be attentive to that fine line between talking about what she wants and getting what she wants. Toddlers are self-oriented. They want what they want when they want it! This is the perfect age, though, to begin to teach basic negotiation skills, so that your daughter learns that getting what she wants is a process of interaction, discussion, and relationship.

By the way, both approaches to tantrums can be effective, so you might want to experiment with what feels right for you, what seems right in the moment, and what works best with your daughter. Good luck!

Dear Bess and Bubby,

My children go to an elementary school that has a nice racial and ethnic mix. There are children there from many different countries, and probably more people of color than white children. We are a mixed-race family, and are pleased to live in a neighborhood where our kids can relate to many different kinds of people, including others who look like them. However, all this diversity has not led to harmony. In fact, there are several cliques that seem to be formed along racial lines, and these groups stick together and don’t much interact with the others. The other day, my oldest, in the 6th grade, told us that he almost got into a fight on the playground because a group of white kids was making racially-demeaning comments about a group of mostly African-American 5th-grade girls that included his younger sister. We want our children to grow up proud of who they are, without having to fight about it. How do we deal with this? — Fed up in Phoenix.

Dear Fed Up,

Alas, the wounds of our national history with slavery are still festering in our society. The journey toward racial harmony is a long one, with peaks and valleys, and is not over yet. Your children are finding out that it falls on their young shoulders to carry forward the work of many who have gone before, those known to us, like Martin Luther King, Jr., and those unknown to us — the countless individuals whose names we will never know, who have found ways to counter racism with dignity and pride.

You need to deal with this situation on several levels. Starting with your son, you should congratulate him on being responsive to racial harassment without resorting to violence. You will also want to speak with your daughter and give her a chance to say how it was for her. Both children together can give a good picture of what was happening and how they were feeling, and then you can move to a problem-solving discussion on how to handle such situations should they arise in the future. You might even role play various scenarios, to help all your children find things to say and do in the face of such behavior, nonviolently and with dignity, that makes it clear the behavior is inappropriate and unacceptable.

Dealing with racism is not your children’s responsibility alone. It is a communal imperative, and so you need to engage the school and the parents. Being a highly diverse school community, no doubt the administration has already given some thought to this and has some policies, and hopefully, some structures in place. First, inform yourself as to what already exists, and then inform the principal about what is actually happening in the children’s lives. Was this incident a one-off, unusual event, or is it part of a widespread pattern? Talk with other parents to hear about their children’s experiences with racial and ethnic differences. The individual boys involved need to be held accountable, of course, but the whole system also needs to use this incident to evolve and improve its handling of racial tensions.

We suggest you work together, through the PTA or in other parent-school forums, to insure that the children of this community are not just physically in a diverse environment but are mining that opportunity to learn and grow in respect and appreciation of our differences, and to transcend the historical patterns of intolerance and prejudice. Someday, perhaps, none of this will be necessary, but for now, the journey continues…

Dear Bess and Bubby,

My six year-old, Jack, has made friends with the roughest, biggest trouble-maker in the first-grade. His name is Ryan and he is out of control. I don’t know why Jack is drawn to such a friend but I do not want to encourage this friendship. The hard part is that Jack asks me again and again if we can invite Ryan over for a playdate. I don’t want to do it, but Jack gets so disappointed when I say “no.” He asks me why, and I make up excuses. What should I do instead? — Mystified in Minneapolis.

Dear Mystified,

Your children will interact with all kinds of people in their lives, and they need to learn to make their own independent choices. Also, the more you say “no” the more Jack will insist. We suggest you invite Ryan over, and treat him like you would any other of Jack’s friends. After all, we know that children respond to how adults view them. If you tell yourself that Ryan is a bad apple, he is more likely to be one. But if you leave yourself room to be surprised, you might find that Ryan is relieved and pleased to be in a household where there are clear boundaries and norms of kindness and caring.

This way, if your worst fears are realized, and Jack becomes more aggressive through his relationship with Ryan, you will at least have some shared data that you can refer to in your discussions with Jack. The over-arching goal, remember, is to be assisting Jack in making choices about his values, and about the people he wants to be around. This is a skill Jack will need all his life; he will never learn if he doesn’t experiment. Six years old is not too early to start!

Bess (Elizabeth Slade) is a mother of three, a Montessori educator, a writer and peace activist. Bubby (Louise Diamond) is a mother and grandmother (“bubby” means grandmother in Yiddish), a writer, professional peace builder and the CEO of The Peace Company. Visit or call 1-888-455-5355 for resources for people who want more peace in their lives and in the world. Please address all questions to bess&