With a shudder, Dr. Awesome recently told me a story about going grocery shopping with his father and two older sisters when he was kid. He couldn’t have been any older than three or four, which would make his sisters under 10 at the time. The girls wanted something Jimbo, as Bartoo the elder is known, was unwilling to buy. A joint temper tantrum ensued. Dr. Awesome recalls with no small amount of awe the fearful sight of their freakout, fists pounding the floor of the supermarket aisle, voices close to shattering the store windows. Jimbo was having none of it. He said something along the lines of, “When you’re done, I’ll be in the dairy aisle,” and rolled the shopping cart off with little Dr. Awesome sitting inside, mouth agape, looking back over his shoulder, unsettled by the whole thing.
He’s still unsettled by it decades later. That’s how much a kid throwing a fit can freak out everyone around it.
And apparently the situation is no different for rhesus macaques. A recent study conducted by a joint U.K.-Puerto Rico team on Cayo Santiago, an island off the coast of P.R., revealed that macaque mothers are far more likely to give in to a tantruming macaque baby if there are other macaques around—particularly aggressive males and dominant females—who might decide they’ve had enough of the noise and are going to take matters into their own hands.
The BBC has a brief article about the research here. To quote heavily from it:
As many human mums will attest – if the infant is ignored, a tantrum can result that can sometimes grate on bystanders….
Stuart Semple, a primatologist from Roehampton University in London who carried out the research, said: “The baby monkeys’ cries are high-pitched, grating and nasty to listen to—not just to their mother but to animals nearby.
“And we found that the way mothers respond to their crying infants is affected by who is around them at the time.”
Further study of the population revealed that although attacks were rare, mothers and infants were more than 30 times more likely to face aggressive behaviour from angry onlookers when a baby was crying than if the baby was content.
Dr Semple explained: “The mothers seem quite reluctant to give in to their infants, but when there are big dominant animals around that pose a threat to either them or their infants, their hand is then forced—they have to give in to their infants’ cries.”
The researchers added that while there had been no directly comparable studies carried out on humans, some anecdotal reports suggested that human mothers were more likely to acquiesce to a screaming child if faced with irritated onlookers.
Jimbo didn’t. And the protoparent in me says this is the right tactic—not to give in, because that’s pretty good reinforcement for the behavior to happen again. But the fellow supermarket shopper in me can imagine the annoyance and dismay I might feel watching him walk away from that screaming snarl of tantruming girls, as if he had spilled corn oil all over the floor but was going to let someone else clean it up. That’s your mess, man. I mean, how many times have you been near a child having a tantrum and felt three seconds away from snarling, “Shut that kid up already!”?
Oy. I simply can’t wait to be on the Decider side of this interaction: yield or resist? I swear my womb reflexively contracts every time I pass a monster-like child who has clearly—and hopefully temporarily—crossed over to the Dark Side. What was I thinking, wanting to do this parenting thing?
Looks like neither we nor the macaques seem to have a sure-fire method for handling a screaming child.