When Toddlers Throw Wobblers

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I think we all know the unspoken rules about witnessing a toddler tantrum in public.

– Do not judge. It could happen to you.
– Do not scowl, roll your eyes or talk to the child about their mother in the third person. It could happen to you.
– It could happen to you.

And yet we have all been guilty of at least a surreptitious butt clench when we hear a stressed parent trying to console or control a toddler whose world is about to end because they can’t have that giant bag of sweets/ cuddly toy/ bottle of toilet cleaner. Even though those of us who have kids try not to judge, we are quietly thankful that our children aren’t that bad, that we would approach the scenario differently, and oh-aren’t-we-lucky-our-toddlers-don’t-shriek-that-loudly, as we give the other mum the sympathetic “we’ve all been there” look, but with added unintentional “but your child might just be a little bit louder than mine” raised eyebrow.

Admit it. You’ve thought this.

Or at least you do until it happens to you, and for the first time it was my angel in the frame this week. I took him to a playgroup and he threw his first real, bonafide, mini-Scarface-esque wobbler. He was overtired and overwhelmed, and cried, thrashed and wailed like a tiny hungover banshee (which I’d imagine is far worse than the regular kind). Then he tried to grab someone else’s sippy cup and I realised I had forgotten his. So not only was I now the owner of the screamer, but I was also the disorganised mother. Who the hell forgets to pack the sippy cup? (Response: someone who was up four times during the night, that’s who).

When it happens to you, the reaction of others makes you accept that yes, your toddler does caterwaul as loudly as other children. It’s just that you happen to love this tiny toddler throwing a wobbler, your inner ears have adjusted to their screams, and not unlike farts, other people’s are always infinitely less bearable.

Feeling sorry for or pitying someone is not the same as a true understanding of their plight. What happens when you become a parent and begin to experience these situations first hand, is that sympathy evolves into empathy. Empathy is the most important of human emotions and is what separates us from the animals. Ok, so that’s completely untrue but I just liked the finality of it. Lots of things separate us from animals (but not always the same things, or even the good things – I refer you to teenage boys). Also animals on the whole are great, and we could take many a leaf out of their furry books. So let me rephrase that; empathy is what separates us from the assholes.

Empathy is the most complex kind of social intelligence, as it can be easy to fake in many circumstances; except in the case of parenting. The subtle nuances that exist between sympathy and empathy can be sniffed out a mile away by another parent. It might be in the tilt of a head, in the words you use, and it might be completely unintentional. But they will know if you genuinely understand or not.

Of course in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter a jot. The parent and screaming toddler and the slightly patronising observer will go on their respective ways, and the whole debacle will be forgotten in minutes. But for the first time this week, I felt the difference between those who understood and those who just pretended to. And I will never, ever forget the fucking sippy cup again.

Maia Dunphy is a writer and broadcaster who stepped in front of the camera after over a decade behind it. She has written and hosted twelve female-centric documentaries for RTE and has written for many well-known publications including the Evening Herald, The Dubliner, The Irish Times and Image Magazine among others.