The Ethical Significance of Toddler Tantrums (guest post by Henry Shevlin)

guest post by
Henry Shevlin

As any parent can readily testify, little kids get upset. A lot. Sometimes it’s for broadly comprehensible stuff - because they have to go to bed or to daycare, for example. Sometimes it’s for more bizarre and idiosyncratic reasons – because their banana has broken, perhaps, or because the Velcro on their shoes makes a funny noise.

For most parents, these episodes are regrettable, exasperating, and occasionally, a little funny. We rarely if ever consider them tragic or of serious moral consequence. We certainly feel some empathy for our children’s intense anger, sadness, or frustration, but we generally don’t make a huge deal about these episodes. That’s not because we don’t care about toddlers, of course – if they were sick or in pain we’d be really concerned. But we usually treat these intense emotional outbursts as just a part of growing up.

Nonetheless, I think if we saw an adult undergoing extremes of negative emotion of the kind that toddlers go through on a daily or weekly basis, we’d be pretty affected by it, and regard it as something to be taken seriously. Imagine you’d visited a friend for dinner, and upon announcing you were leaving, he broke down in floods of tears, beating on the ground and begging you not to go. Most of us wouldn’t think twice about sticking around until he felt better. Yet when a toddler pulls the same move (say, when we’re dropping them off with a grandparent), most parents remained, if not unmoved, then at least resolute.

What’s the difference between our reactions in these cases? In large part, I think it’s because we assume that when adults get upset, they have good reasons for it – if an adult friend starts sobbing uncontrollably, then our first thought is going to be that they’re facing real problems. For a toddler, by contrast – well, they can get upset about almost anything.

This makes a fair amount of sense as far as it goes. But it also seems to require that our moral reactions to apparent distress should be sensitive not just to the degree of unhappiness involved, but the reasons for it. In other words, we’re not discounting toddler tantrums because we think little kids aren’t genuinely upset, or are faking, but because the tantrums aren’t reflective of any concerns worth taking too seriously.

Interestingly, this idea seems at least prima facie in tension with some major philosophical accounts of happiness and well-being, notably like hedonism or desire satisfaction theory. By the lights of these approaches, it’s hard to see why toddler emotions and desires shouldn’t be taken just as seriously as adult ones. These episodes do seem like bona fide intensely negative experiences, so for utilitarians, every toddler could turn out to be a kind of negative utility monster! Similarly, if we adopt a form of consequentialism that aims at maximizing the number of satisfied desires, toddlers might be an outsize presence – as indicated by their tantrums, they have a lot of seemingly big, powerful, intense desires all the time (for, e.g., a Kinder Egg, another episode of Ben and Holly, or that one toy their older sibling is playing with).

One possibility I haven’t so far discussed is the idea that toddlers’ emotional behavior might be deceptive: perhaps the wailing toddler, contrary to appearances, is only mildly peeved that a sticker peeled off his toy. There may be something to this idea: certainly, toddlers have very poor inhibitory control, so we might naturally expect them to be more demonstrative about negative emotions than adults. That said, I find it hard to believe that toddlers really aren’t all that bothered by whatever it is that’s caused their latest tantrum. As much as I may be annoyed at having to leave a party early, for example, it’s almost inconceivable to me that it could ever trigger floods of tears and wailing, no matter how badly my inhibitory control had been impaired by the host’s martinis. (Nonetheless, I’d grant this is an area where psychology or neuroscience could be potentially informative, so that we might gain evidence that toddlers’ apparent distress behavior was misleading).

But if we do grant that toddlers really get very upset all the time, is it a serious moral problem? Or just an argument against theories that take things like emotions and desires to be morally significant in their own right, without being justified by good reasons? As someone sympathetic to both hedonism about well-being and utilitarianism as a normative ethical theory, I’m not sure what to think. Certainly, it’s made me consider whether, as a parent, I should take my son’s tantrums more seriously. For example, if we’re at the park, and I know he’ll have a tantrum if we leave early, should I prioritize his emotions above, e.g., my desire to get home and grade student papers? Perhaps you’ll think that in reacting like this, I’m just being overly sentimental or sappy – come on, what could be more normal than toddler tantrums! – but it’s worth being conscious of the fact that previous societies normalized ways of treating children that we nowadays would regard as brutal.

There’s also, of course, the developmental question: toddlers aren’t stupid, and if they realize that we’ll do anything to avoid them having tantrums, then they’ll exploit that to their own (dis)advantage. Learning that you can’t always get what you want is certainly part of growing up. But thinking about this issue has certainly made me take another look at how I think about and respond to my son’s outbursts, even if I can’t fix his broken bananas.

Note: this blogpost is an extended exploration of ideas I earlier discussed here.

[image: Angelina Koh]

Post a Comment

0 Comments