You're in a store, little kid in hand, and then suddenly she tries to pull away. You bend down and whisper quietly in her ear, "Stay with Mommy, honey," knowing full well that this reasonable request is a foolish attempt to dampen the temper tantrum that is rising like a tsunami inside your kid. With a pounding heart, you scoop her up and run from the store before someone shouts, "Bad parent. Dreadful child. Get out!"
No one knows why 2-year-olds have temper tantrums, but most of them do. It starts with mild anger over something simple but then quickly escalates into full blown fury dramatized by screaming, fist pounding, foot-stomping, and screaming. The child also descends psychologically into a place where they can't be reached by words or physical comfort, and parents stand by helpless and confused.
Clearly, the child is distressed, but to the parent, the distress seems way out of proportion to the situation. And it is physically stressful for the child, which suggests that there must be some evolutionary reason why temper tantrums are so universal for little kids.
Pediatrician Harvey Karp, author of "The Happiest Toddler on the Block," and an expert in getting babies and toddlers to quiet down, claims that tantrums are an expected product of human development. He sees our little darlings as less-evolved savages driven by instinct and emotion, not thoughtful reasoning, and he suggests it's our job as parents to civilize them into Homo sapiens.
And so, Dr. Karp suggests, in the midst of a tantrum a parent should reach way back to our ancient ancestors and think like a Neanderthal and become one with the child and figure out how to stop the screaming.
His method is to speak in short phrases that reflect the primitive emotions of the child ("You are angry") rather than addressing the adult modern Homo sapiens situation of the moment ("Please stop. Big girls don't scream in stores.")
Apparently, nothing infuriates these little Neanderthals more than Homo sapiens logic. They just want to be heard and their emotions acknowledged and a tantrum is best controlled by the simple, "I hear you. I feel you."
Of course, Dr. Karp maligns Neanderthals by suggesting there were instinctual creatures swayed by emotions rather than thought. Neanderthals didn’t have language, but they had bigger brains than modern humans and could probably do logic problems with the best of us.
His advice is better couched in the notion that Homo sapiens, and presumably our ancestors, were designed to feel very deeply, and little kids simply want their emotions acknowledged, just like adults.
In fact, adults spend millions of dollars each year to talk to counselors and get their feelings heard. And relationships work best when people are able to see and hear each other's pain, misery, happiness and joy.
And so parents need not read the history of human evolution to know how to deal with their unruly kids.
All we have to do, even in the middle of the most embarrassing public tantrum, is to reach inside and feel that same frustration and anger with the world, and then bend down and say, as Dr Karp would, "I know just how you feel."
Meredith F. Small is an anthropologist at Cornell University. She is also the author of "Our Babies, Ourselves; How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent" (link) and "The Culture of Our Discontent; Beyond the Medical Model of Mental Illness" (link).