Two-year-old Prince George went to an airshow with his parents on the weekend. Many news outlets carried a picture of him crying and reaching to be picked up by his mother, a gesture so familiar to most parents you can almost feel those muscles of your back bracing to take the load. The story some news outlets ran was that the “normally well-behaved” George “appeared to break down in some sort of tantrum.”
I wasn’t there but I’ll warrant neither were the headline writers. I don’t know if they're more influenced by their own childhoods than the rest of us but I cannot for the life of me see in the photo, and certainly not the video that shows the whole thing, what they saw. I cannot see a tantrum. It does look as if the little boy is upset. He’s crying and he reaches to be picked up by his mother. She picks him up and provides comfort. Then she puts him down and he’s fine for a while until a jet takes off and he reaches to his father who picks him up, talks to him and then goes and finds the nanny who’s carrying a bag from which they take out a pair of ear protectors which he puts on the little boy. They put him down again and he toddles along with them, tentative when the noise of the jets around him ramps up again.
Frankly, if I saw the pictures without the headline, a young child among adults among big planes and helicopters, I would assume it was fear he experienced, not anger or frustration, and that the fear might have related to noise, the engines, the folk shouting at one another to be heard above them, the cameras, the whole scene. Once I saw the video, this was even more obvious. His mother picks him up, reassures. His father does the same a little later. They solve the problem as best they can.
The way we interpret children’s behaviour, in coffee shops, on planes, in playgrounds, can be awful for parents. Imagine how much worse it is when it’s international headline material.
But what if, God forbid, those headline writers were correct and little Prince George really was having a tantrum on the tarmac, an uncontrolled outburst of anger and frustration? We’ve all seen it at the shopping centre. Many of us have been the parent everyone’s staring expectantly at. What are you going to do about it? those accusing eyes say.
British child development writer Penelope Leach tells us that a child's first tantrum is a storm that passes through. It's not something a child can manipulate. It’s their only way of dealing with the powerful emotions that we as adults have learned, sometimes to our detriment, to be more sophisticated about. The last thing you do is capitulate if the child is wanting something you’ve said no to because that will encourage the behaviour. But you do stay with them, provide comfort, stop them hurting themselves. American developmental psychologist Aletha Solter goes further, says that children can’t always express what’s happening to them at the level of their feelings. They can be overwhelmed and cry and rage seemingly for no reason even after they've learned to communicate with words. You can help by keeping them safe to explore their feelings and work through them.
So whether he was afraid or having a tantrum, George’s parents did exactly what his parents should do. They provided comfort, did their best to mitigate environmental factors and let him move on. I suspect his parents, like many parents, might actually know their son better than those headline writers, better than any of us.
I can’t imagine what it’s like to be them, to have every move photographed and dissected. But it was nice to know they could respond so genuinely and appropriately to their little boy regardless of what others might say about it.