Grace for Toddler Tantrums

“Let The Feelings Be,” Parenting Wisdom from Janet Lansbury

Sam Bush / 2.3.22

Among a sea of magnets and drawings, our refrigerator door has one hastily scribbled note taped to it that says, “Let The Feelings Be!” Like most notes, it is there to remind me of something I will inevitably forget. It’s an adage from the parenting podcaster Janet Lansbury, whose voice is much more soothing than the added exclamation point suggests. Whenever I happen to glance at it during a toddler tantrum or meltdown in our home, it gives me permission to not intervene. Rather than run for the tissues, I am invited to sit in the sadness, whether the expressed emotion is justified or completely overblown (it’s usually the latter).

Lansbury is the recent focus of a New Yorker feature by Ariel Levy, one that I have been expecting for a long time considering how many parents I know who are devoted followers. When we recently asked my neighbor if he ever tuned in to Lansbury’s Unruffled parenting podcast, he simply said, “Oh ya. I’m a listener.” Almost a million other parents join the ranks for each episode.

The modus operandi of Unruffled is respecting your child’s emotions. Rather than distracting a child away from his feelings – “Oh, look! A firetruck!” — or, I don’t know, walking away while rolling your eyes, Lansbury suggests an alternative. Instead of muffling a child’s emotions, parents are encouraged to invite all of the pain all of the time. Her approach is based on the idea that, in order to grow and learn how to express their emotions in a healthy way, children must be given permission to lose it. In addition to keeping him safe, a parent’s main purpose is to let their kid let it all out. This technique is hardly taking the easy way out by putting your child in a room for five minutes to let them cool down. It is sitting in the sadness or rage with them.

Each Unruffled episode begins with a struggling parent with a specific conflict they’ve been having with their toddler – potty training, biting, being rude to strangers. Lansbury is quick to sympathize with the parent. After all, it feels like a no-win situation when your two-year old is throwing his head against the floor whenever he’s told no. Lansbury admits her own parental instincts in the article – “My tendency would be to avoid, just don’t bring it up” – before offering a suggestion. “What this approach says is bring it all up,” she said, tearing up. “That whole thing… ‘Conflict is O.K.’ Kids are O.K. with it. They learn from it! Man, if I would’ve had that?” she says, shaking her head.

Lansbury’s message to parents is simple: you’re not going to stop the flood, but you can build a boat. Thus, the solution to the toddler banging his head against the floor is to put a blanket down so he won’t hurt himself and affirming his feelings by saying, “Sometimes you go down on the ground because you don’t like it when someone says no?” As illogical as it sounds, Lansbury holds firm to the idea that letting the feelings be is far better than straight-line opposition. “How can your child continue to fight when you won’t stop agreeing with her?” she says. In other words, it’s not really a battle when the stronger force refuses to fight.

If any of this sounds familiar, these are the same mechanics and principles as active listening, but in toddler form. You bear the other person’s burdens, you condescend in order to get on the same level as the other person (quite literally, for toddlers). In other words, it’s an expression of grace, not law.  To toddlers, the law looks like all of the countless other tricks people use to get toddlers to do what they want. Redirection, counting to three, breathing deeply, threats or shame might all work temporarily, but they won’t do much for a relationship in the long run. Physically picking up a two-year old and forcefully helping her calm down might be effective, but that tactic only works because toddlers are physically smaller.

Whether it’s expressed aloud or not, toddlers are often considered the one exception to grace in practice. Even kindergartners can understand the concept of undeservedness, but toddlers? They need the law in place to keep them alive! Light sockets and street-crossing aside, there is a caveat that toddlers need to be taught.

The other catch, of course, is that “letting the feelings be” is impossible, at least all of the time. I’ll admit, the mantra on my fridge does more to convict than it does to instruct. Even if it were tattooed on my forearm, I would fail to absorb all of the feelings constantly billowing out of my four-year old. To that end, Lansbury sometimes gets compared to Martha Stewart, someone who points to the good life without understanding the real world. One woman opts to read the transcripts of the podcast instead of listening to it, because Lansbury’s velvety voice makes her homicidal. “I feel like there’s this bar that nobody could ever possibly reach except for Janet, because she’s just so perfect,” she says. “Let the feelings be” may be a good mantra, but what about when you just need to get your kid’s shoes on because you’re already late for school (or church)?

It all leads to one question: does this approach to parenting work or not? Does it help a child become more well-adjusted or does it prevent him from learning to handle his emotions? The answer varies from family to family, of course. “All parenting is a faith-based initiative,” writes Levy. But Lansbury’s approach doesn’t operate on metrics. Her primary concern is not the result but the relationship. Allowing a child to express themselves completely is one way of communicating that they are loved just as they are, tantrums and all. After all, grace always operates out of risk. Love never guarantees a return on investment. It often generates a loving response, but not automatically. Rather than a means to an end, it is an end in itself. When parenting often feels like a choose-your-own-misadventure, it is good to be reminded that the relationship is more important than the result.

Lansbury’s approach does not look all that crazy compared to God’s own parent style. He doesn’t hit the smite button every time we sin. Yes, there is inevitably some form of consequence waiting for us further down the road, but He refuses to respond with the anxiety of a parent. In fact, He often uses His power to do nothing. He plays the long game. Try as I might to test my heavenly Father’s limits, He is patient with my own fits of rage. Time and again, the stronger force refuses to fight. It’s a power that resembles weakness more than strength. He is more than willing to absorb our sadness. In due time, of course, God will wipe away our tears, but only after we have cried until we cannot cry anymore. That, of course, is when the true healing begins.

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One response to “Grace for Toddler Tantrums”

  1. […] In February Sam Bush wrote a great piece about toddler tantrums and the gospel of gentle parenting. A month later,  Jessica Winter surfaced […]

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