NPR Promotes 'Science' of Kiddie Temper Tantrums, Advises Parents to 'Do Nothing'

On Monday's Morning Edition, NPR science reporter Shankar Vedantam (formerly of The Washington Post) indulged the naughtiest little children, the ones that throw screaming, crying tantrums in public places. The story claimed scientists have now apparently proven that parents should just let the little monsters roar until they exhaust themselves. In the early stages of rage, parents should "do nothing. Don't shout, don't hit, don't try to comfort the child." You can thank NPR the next time this experiment unfolds at the mall."

Vedantam's first subject was little Katrina Doudna: "There was nothing wrong with Katrina. Small kids just have tantrums. Some have lots of them. Tantrums may be traumatic for parents, but they're mostly normal behavior. So science hasn't paid much attention to them, until now."

NPR wasn't scientific enough to realize that children of indulgent parents are much more likely to have spoiled children who throw tantrums. Perhaps these NPR experts never had a parent that would send a child to bed without supper at the first tantrum, and the tantrums were never seen again. This is liberal NPR, where parents are told to just wait out the rages, and let your indulgent parenting be witnessed by everyone who comes across you in public:

VEDANTAM: James Green is a psychologist at the University of Connecticut. He and a colleague have developed a new theory of tantrums. Green's going to apply his theory to one of Katrina Doudna's tantrums. He's going to give us a play-by-play analysis.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING)

VEDANTAM: But first, I want him to tell you how he collected his data.

GREEN: We developed a onesie that toddlers can wear, that has a high-quality, wireless microphone sewn into it. Parents put this onesie on the child, and press a go button on the equipment.

VEDANTAM: And then everyone waits to see if the toddler has a meltdown. Over time, the researchers collected more than 100 screaming, crying and shouting performances. When they analyzed the audio files, the scientists discovered something. Here's Green's colleague, Michael Potegal of the University of Minnesota.

MICHAEL POTEGAL: We have the most quantitative theory of tantrums that has ever been developed in the history of humankind, he said modestly.

VEDANTAM: You heard that right. A scientific theory of tantrums. By breaking down the audio recordings, Potegal and Green found that tantrums follow rules. Screams and yells usually come together. Throwing things, and pulling and pushing, happen together. Crying, whining, and falling down on the floor go together.

POTEGAL: The impression that tantrums have two stages is incorrect. In fact, the anger and the sadness are more or less simultaneous.

VEDANTAM: Green and Potegal found that different tantrum sounds have distinct audio signatures. When you plot the sounds on a graph, you see how different sounds emerge and fade during a tantrum. Sad sounds, like whimpering and crying, occur throughout the tantrum. But superimposed on them, you see sharp peaks - yelling and screaming. That's the anger.

The trick, Potegal says, is to get the child past the peaks of anger. Once you do that, what's left is the sadness, and sad children reach out for comfort. The quickest way past the anger - do nothing. Don't shout, don't hit, don't try to comfort the child.

It apparently takes a scientific genius to realize that when a brat is screaming at the top of the lungs, asking questions pretending the child is calm and rational doesn't work -- and makes the questioner look ridiculous:

VEDANTAM: As a father, Green's fallen into the same trap himself. As a researcher, he knows it's a mistake.

GREEN: When children are at their peak of anger, and they're screaming and they're kicking, probably asking questions might prolong that period of anger.

VEDANTAM: He thinks it's because the child is already overwhelmed.

GREEN: It's difficult for them to process information. And to respond to a question that the parent's asking may be just adding more information into the system than they can really cope with.

VEDANTAM: It's better, Green says, to keep things simple. Issue short commands like, sit down; go to your room. I asked Green how the new theory might predict where Katrina's tantrum would go.

Vedantam ends the story by remarking on how once you take the scientific approach to tantrum, you can observe them like you're in a lab with scientific detachment, and even amusement:

VEDANTAM: But in a paper they published in the journal Emotion, Green and Potegal argue that no matter how long tantrums last or how often they occur, they follow the same pattern. When Potegal now sees a child having a meltdown at a grocery store, he says he watches to see how well the tantrum fits the pattern he's identified.

POTEGAL: When we're walking down the street or see a child having a tantrum, I comment on the child's technique. Mutter to my family, 'good data,' and they all laugh.

VEDANTAM: What this means is that if you start to observe tantrums like scientists do, instead of experiencing them like parents do, they stop being traumatic. They may even become interesting. Shankar Vedantam, NPR News.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis