Why the Supermarket Squeeze is a Technique to Avoid
If you can't be a good example, then you'll just have to be a horrible warning.
You wouldn't believe how many people ask me if I'm, "like, a perfect parent?" Uh, no. I personally don't think I'm a bad mother, but there are plenty of strangers who probably think I am.
For example, the other day I was in the grocery store with both kids, and like most other working parents there, I was just trying to get my shopping done so that I could get dinner on the table before it was past everyone's bedtimes. Fiona was making me crazy: putting food in the cart that she knew I'd never buy for her, trying to ride on the back of the cart, taunting her sister, generally messing with me in every way that she could think of. I employed the "grocery-store-grab" or the "supermarket squeeze," passed down to me by my own mother. It is a hard squeeze just above the elbow and a whispered threat that she better knock it off or she'll never get to watch TV again. Ever. I know that the grocery-store-grab isn't on the list of well-proven and effective parenting behaviors, but is it so bad every once in a while?
Unfortunately, punitive parenting wreaks havoc on children's ability to discipline themselves. Although the spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child generation made a big case for keeping kids in line through force—like deprivation of privileges and corporeal punishment—social science has built a clear body of evidence that shows that these techniques are ultimately ineffective and certainly undesirable for those interested in raising happy children. Although I am still not able to refrain from the occasional grocery-store-grab, I of all people know that it doesn't work.
On the particular occasion described above, Fiona yelled, "YOU ARE HURTING MY BODY! WHY WOULD A MOTHER HURT HER CHILD'S BODY??" She did not, suffice it to say, become a compliant and delightful shopping companion.
Besides being appalling for my public image as a parenting expert, the grocery-store-grab is a terrible way to teach children discipline. When parental expectations for behavior are conveyed to children in threatening or punitive ways, kids are likely to become angry, anxious, or frightened. This over-arousal shifts the focus from what the parent wants, or is trying to teach, to how the child is responding to the parent's message. This shift in focus reduces the likelihood that the parent's punishment will be effective—that the child being punished will understand and try to fulfill his or her parent's wishes.
Besides being ineffective, punishment—physically punitive practices like spanking as well as threatening behaviors like yelling, grabbing, and verbal coercion—tend to be damaging to kids. Lots of studies have found associations between harsh parenting and higher rates of defiance, behavior problems, depression and anxiety in teenagers, not to mention kids' diminished ability to control both their behavior and their emotions.
Disciplining our children positively, on the other hand—and teaching them to discipline themselves—makes them ready to learn: curious, open, centered. Punishment does the reverse, drawing kids' focus not to what they can learn from a given situation, but to the pain they are feeling from it. The next time I'm tempted to control my kids with the grocery-store-grab, I'll ask myself: Will this help them learn self-discipline? Or help them be ready to learn anything at all?
Can you think of a situation in which you felt like a bad parent? These are the times when we can grow the most as parents, especially if we reflect on our weak moments. None of us is perfect, nor is it appropriate for us to try to be. I would love to have a monthly reader-written column here on Half Full where we can have a chance to reflect together on our not-so-great moments and what we've learned from them. So please send me your stories! Tell it like it is: write about what happened (no need for the analysis I do with my own story, above). If you really get into it, you can expand on what you learned, and how you and your kids felt about it all. A paragraph or two is fine—it doesn't have to be well-written or long.
Thank you in advance!
© 2009 Christine Carter, Ph.D.
Colman, Rebecca A., Sam A. Hardy, Myesha Albert, Marcela Raffaelli, and Lisa Crocket. "Early Predictors of Self-Regulation in Middle Childhood." Infant and Child Development 15, no. 4 (2006): 421-37.
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