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Monday, September 29, 2014

Tantrums, Trials, and the Culture of Toddlerhood

Psychology Today came out with a very interesting article last week that discussed the differences (human age 1-3) and the Adult Brain (human's reach brain maturation around age 25 and it last until death or dementia in most cases). The main focus of the article was explaining why adult humans under stress revert to toddler-like behavior. It emphasizes the fact that the Toddler Brain, the volatile limbic system, reaches maturation at age three and that under stress most people will fall back to using this part of the brain out of habit.
between the Toddler Brain

It's a very enlightening article and well worth the five minutes that you need to read it, but what I wanted to pull out of it today was something about character writing. Because I was really struck by the list of behaviors the article authors called the Culture of Toddlerhood. Great name, right? Look at the behaviors that are defined as being appropriate for a toddler's development.

  • Entitlement (ever-expanding perception of “rights” and demands)
  • Self-obsession (inability to see perspectives that go beyond personal experience)
  • Splitting (good or bad, angel or demon, all or nothing)
  • Intolerance of disagreement and uncertainty
  • Elevation of feelings over values
  • Substituting power for value (reacting to diminished self-value by exerting power)
Do you see the same pattern I do? Entitlement, narcissism, an all-or-nothing mentality, angered by dissent, a focus on feelings rather than value, and reacting to lowered self-esteem with a show of power. Hmmm.... sounds a lot like a poorly written Alpha Male.

Actually, my first thought was that this sounds like every misogynist I've ever encountered online, but let's focus on fictional people today.

There's been a trend for, oh, I don't know how long, where the the sexually elite alpha male is portrayed as this brooding wonderboy who believes the world spins around him and that everything should go his way. There are women written like this too, but almost always a woman who exhibits these characteristics in fiction is vilified. She's the Bad Guy. Which is fine. Adults shouldn't be exhibiting this behavior.

But, as I said, there's a trend to glorify this behavior in what many readers call Alphahole characters. Male characters who think a woman is either a virgin or a slut. Male characters who beat the other characters for disagreeing with them. Male characters who exhibit all the traits of abusive, infantile human beings and yet are portrayed as the heroes. These guys need to go.

If you're an author, take this list and check it against your character's age and maturity. If your hero is 30 and exhibiting all of this on page one, there better be a character arc where boyo grows up real fast.

If you're writing a teen, that awkward stage between infancy and adulthood where you are training yourself to use the adult brain rather than the toddler brain, you'll probably want to mix these behaviors in. A teen is going to falter through periods where they revert to using the toddler brain because they are still learning how to react to various situations. If you've read the article you know the author references The Cult Of Feelings, or that how you feel defines who and what you are, and that is a very real part of the teen years and something that many YA books address.

If you're a reader and you encounter a book where the Culture of Toddlerhood is elevated to ideal behavior for a grown adult, I invite you to throw the book at the wall and mark as Did Not Finish.

If you encounter an adult like this in a real world circumstance, print the article and invite them to read it. Highlight the bit at the bottom that discusses how we can choose to change ourselves and not revert to using the toddler brain. Maybe go so far as to buy a copy of the book this article is from for your office library. Share as needed.

And, above all else, be aware that stress leads to thinking like a two-year-old and train yourself to react like an adult instead of throwing a tantrum.

1 comment:

  1. I’ll be the first to admit that as a mom, I don’t always understand my children, which is why I really like to read things like this! It's nice to reference posts that offer such great advice. Chantal Kayem, wrote a book called "The Happy Toddler", http://www.chantalkayem.com.au/, my friend told me about it looks like another great source for parents! Thanks for so much for this post!