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Bad Mother: Real-Life Tales of Imperfect Parenting

August 27, 2009 | Posts with Videos | 31 comments

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.
—Catherine Aird

Video: Letting Go of Being Perfect

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.

Selected reference:

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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But what is the answer?

What can someone do in such a situation?

The behaviour must be stopped, it is not the place to let her do what she wants, nor is it the place to have a quiet reasonable talk, sometimes a little physical restraint and to the point command perhaps with a quiet reasonable talk later at home is all that can be done, no?

My oldest is 3, youngest 3months, there have not been many incidents yet and in the store I let her ride the back of the cart, if I could I’d ride it with her http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/half_full/wp-includes/images/smilies/icon_wink.gif

Hugo | 2:10 pm, August 27, 2009 | Link

 

So, what ought parents do in this situation?
This is beginning to happen more and more with my 2.5 year old, and she does not respond to quiet reasonable talk in the moment at the grocery store. I’d love to get some tips on what else I can do in that scenario. Thanks.

Jen | 3:10 pm, August 27, 2009 | Link

 

I admit to doin the grocery store grab many times with my 3.5 year old twins.  I found myself totally frustrated every time we went to the grocery store.  My biggest frustration is that there’s never a cart big enough to put them BOTH in so they end up running around, chasing each other, and I spend the entire time threatening them or throwing sugary snacks at them to keep them entertained.  Then it suddenly occurred to me: “Why am I setting myself up like this??”  I don’t take them anymore – not until they are ready.  I go in the evenings or when my husband is home.  It’s not fair to them or to me!

Amy | 5:34 pm, August 27, 2009 | Link

 

Yes, what do you do instead of the Grocery Store Grab…guilty!!

Donna | 7:11 pm, August 27, 2009 | Link

 

I had the same question as the other commenters. what’s the positive discipline counter-example in the scenario described above?

andrea | 11:36 pm, August 27, 2009 | Link

 

We are blessed with a gentle, reasonable child who still becomes ungentle and unreasonable about three or four times a week, and more often is just whiny. Perhaps because of this, when he’s acting like a little jerk I often squat down to his level and discuss with him how he’s making me or his mother or the people around us feel. Six times out of ten, that works; he becomes better behaved. This method takes longer, needless to say, than something like the shoulder grab. If I don’t have the luxury of time or if he is just not behaving, I give him until the count of three to settle down. If he doesn’t, I (depending on the circumstances) a) pick him up and carry him; b) ignore him; or c) restrain him. Later, during calm moments, we talk about what happened and why I had to do what I did. Works for us.

Jeremy Adam Smith | 10:23 am, August 28, 2009 | Link

 

By the way, my son is five years old.

Jeremy Adam Smith | 10:24 am, August 28, 2009 | Link

 

I’ve certainly done the grab as well.  My oldest is 8 and is simply too big now for me to remove when the antics start up.  If we can’t communicate, it’s all downhill from there.  Add in the 3 and 2yo and sometimes shopping can be a real hassle.  Leaving them home isn’t an option.  What I really need is a way to keep myself calm, since that’s really the only part I can control.

Sarah | 9:02 pm, August 28, 2009 | Link

 

Christine,
So what would you say/do to your child if in that situation again?  We have all been in those grocery store situations.  You said what not to do, so what are we supposed to do or say?
Thanks,

K. B.

K. B. | 11:35 pm, August 28, 2009 | Link

 

Hi Christine,
I’d love to hear what you “should” have done instead of the “grab” at the grocery store.  In the moment when you realised that grabbing your daughter would not help her discipline herself, what technique would you then use to get her to leave the unwanted foods on the shelf?  We are going a bit nuts here in our house (S. – young 5, M. -young 3, H. – 7 mo.) since summer is winding to a close and it is time for school.  I’ve been doing a bit of grabbing, myself. Our school psychologist swears by 1-2-3 Magic and it’s time outs; but I imagine that you would not subscribe to this?
H.

H. | 11:38 pm, August 28, 2009 | Link

 

Hi Christine,
I read this with great interest because it descibes me to a “T”! Threats of losing TV, stuffed animals, etc. seem to be the only way to get my 5-year-old to do anything, and I’m so tired of it. Half the time it doesn’t work and she is getting more and more defiant.
What can I do instead?
Thanks,

J. S. (from myRegence.com)

J. S. | 11:42 pm, August 28, 2009 | Link

 

Hi Christine,
I really appreciate your posts, but am having trouble with this one.  I try every positive enforcement technique to get compliance from my almost 5 year old daughter, but she responds most readily and best to forceful, determinative threat of losing something and or yelling.  She complies when I get mad and serious and only argues with me when I try to use techniques for self-discipline, understanding, positive incentives.  She has become a bargaining machine.  I’ve had to resort to “because I said so” “I’m the parent, that’s why.”  and “1, 2, 3″ on too numerous occasions.  She is not only willful, she is logical and argumentative, so it goes on forever.  She truly believes she has power to influence the situation and I feel like I need to teach her that she doesn’t.  Have we gone too far with the research? Don’t kids need a little something to push up against as unfair? Doesn’t my daughter need to learn that she can’t always get her way and learn that she can’t bargain for everything?  I let her do it sometimes so that we can get to a peaceful result – I pick my battles, but am feeling like the empowerment just leads her to create more.
Thanks

R.

(working mother of L. 5 and I. 20 mos).

R. | 11:43 pm, August 28, 2009 | Link

 

I enjoyed reading this article, but you didn’t say what you should have done in the supermarket instead of what you actually did.  What should we do instead of taking away privileges?  How do we discipline positively and teach our children to discipline themselves?
E.

E. | 11:44 pm, August 28, 2009 | Link

 

OK, so you told me what NOT to do, I need to know WHAT to do. Thanks in advance.
–M.A.

M.A. | 11:46 pm, August 28, 2009 | Link

 

Dont have a story to send, yet. But, this was one of the most helpful e mails I have gotten in a long time!! Thank you on behalf of all women that grab their children too hard every now and then and then hate ourselves for days afterward!!!!!!!!!!! What a great idea, while the internet is so helpful, I also find it stressful to have the “perfect” answer to every situation a google search away. Thanks again for celebrating the imerfect!

P.L.

P.L. | 11:49 pm, August 28, 2009 | Link

 

What do we do instead of the grocery store grab? I know it is not useful or constructive, but need an alternative.  Just did it in the middle of the Gap yesterday while back to school shopping.  Need solutions please- it is not very *responsible* (see title below) of me to leave hand prints on my daughter’s arm and have her exclaim loudly to all within ear distance:  Look what my Mom did to me!
K.M.

K.M. | 11:51 pm, August 28, 2009 | Link

 

So, the next time you’re tempted to do it, what will you do instead? That’s what I want to know.
Thanks,

M.G.

M.G. | 11:52 pm, August 28, 2009 | Link

 

I had the same thought as everyone else:  then what?
But the problem I have with my 4.5yo is he will just turn to jelly and flop onto the floor.  He’ll pretend that he wants help getting up, but will just do this fake struggle floppy thing and will not get up himself.  I have too many other kids to be able to deal with that, and it stops us all in our tracks.

charbatkin | 1:08 am, August 29, 2009 | Link

 

Like the others – I’d love some more info (perhaps a follow up post) on what you should have done in that situation. 
I always feel like putting myself in a time out when I fell I might resort to punishment, but that isn’t an option in a shop.

Lara | 4:43 pm, August 29, 2009 | Link

 

How about leaving the store, together, and go through the emotional coaching conversation you have on the website.  Whenever my 3-year-old son is acting out in the store it is not because he is experiencing positive emotions.  Come to a solution about how to make the experience one where your child doesn’t feel the need to throw things, etc.  If there istn’t a solution, maybe it isn’t the right time to go shopping.  That may not be relistic for many reasons, but if it is possible to do it later, maybe it is for the best
I think it is so important forgive yourself and apologize to your child about your own behavior.  Wow, I’ve got SO many stories like this.  No one is perfect, but we can admit our mistakes, take responsibility and learn.  And hopefully laugh along the way.

Rebeka | 11:15 am, August 31, 2009 | Link

 

I agree with this article and realize there must be better options than the Grocery Store Grab. One thing that I have found that “HELPS”… is
to prepare my 3 year old son before we ever go in to whatever situation we are going to encounter (grocery store, meeting where I need to talk to an adult and he needs not to touch everything) that we are going to be doing such a thing and that I need his cooperation. I ask him if he is able to do it, then, when inside the store I remind him of what he told me he could do (keep quiet, listen and not touch things when I asked, etc.)
A second thing that I have found helps is if we are someplace that is ubra super exciting for them to be (store with toys etc.) is I have laid down said rules and they are still not listening,,, asking “Do you want to leave? Because that is going to be what will happen if you don’t start listening.”
This saves either one of us from getting too fustrated in public but you have to be prepared to make good on the threat and really just leave to prove the point that you mean business.

StillWorkingOnIt | 12:25 pm, August 31, 2009 | Link

 

Great post! Yeah, what would you do instead of the grocery store grab? I, too, am guilty of it more times than I care to admit. As the mother of 8-year-old boy/girl twins, I have always found it unpleasant to take them shopping anywhere, be it a grocery store, clothing store, Target, whatever. They usually get each other riled up and poke at each other throughout the store as I am gritting my teeth, grabbing their arms all the while trying to finish the task. What works best for me is 1)give the kids a heads-up that we’re making this trip (so they can wrap their minds around it 2)tell them what I expect from them behavior-wise 3) give them each something to help me look for throughout the store (that way everyone has a responsibilty). When all else fails I have resorted to the occasional bribe from the dollar bins. Not the best solution, I know, but I sometimes allow them each to pick an item for $1 at the end of the trip OR at the beginning as an incentive. Hey, whatever works! What would the Duggar family do (expecting baby #19).

Amy | 4:26 pm, September 2, 2009 | Link

 

Oh, and ever since my twins were little, I have encouraged them to bring along a small toy to entertain themselves with in the store. It’s actully not very realistic to expect little guys to stand there with their hands in their pockets, silent.

Amy | 4:29 pm, September 2, 2009 | Link

 

What about having many talks about grocery store behavior while on the way to the store?  Talks peppered with humor and understanding and mutual respect?  It’s never to early to engage in mutual respect!  Have some fun with your kids and ask them what might happen when a mommy or daddy behaves badly at the grocery store.  Or in the doctor’s office.  Expand their brains, have some fun, come to conclusions, make some reference points for them to hold onto!

Mary | 11:13 pm, September 2, 2009 | Link

 

I know this can’t work for everyone, but I made a deal with my spouse when the kids were young.  The parent that didn’t do the grocery shopping baby-sat the kids.  Once they were old enough to “help” with the shopping they were allowed to pick out a treat if they were good.  I tried to make a lesson of it when possible – they loved to count aloud each piece of fruit we placed in the bags.

Donna | 2:21 pm, September 3, 2009 | Link

 

Hi Christine,
    As with everything that I read from you, I enjoyed and benefitted from your wisdom.  I sorely identify with the supermarket squeeze.  Please, please follow this particular posting up with what one SHOULD do with a child that is testing, testing, testing, as in your story.  My daughter is continuously displaying this same behavior.  I know what not to do (as you described) but what should I do instead, especially with ongoing behaviors that you described.  Thanks a million.  Can’t wait for the next posting….

P.H. | 7:23 pm, September 3, 2009 | Link

 

Dear Christine,

Thank you for the validation – you’re right; afternoon “poison hour” is not the time we naturally calm down and reflect how normal it is to be imperfect.
But before I send you any stories of my imperfections, I’m curious what you would write as to what you should have done (or what anyone should do) at the grocery store (your example)?

My recent example is at a school soccer game after school, when my daughter had a tween attack and was so snippy to me in her new $150 school tracksuit that I was rendered speechless (not a usual state of affairs for me).  Thoughts darted through my head like hummingbirds (my parents would have had me committed at age ten if I’d told them I needed or wanted a $150 track suit; if I take the tracksuit away or threaten to, will the humiliation teach the lesson or compound the problem, is ten too early for boarding school).
What’s the received better way of handling behaviour in public (because I think that’s the key; we behave differently when we’re under time pressure, if we’re in private or public, and how little excercise or wine we’ve gotten into our bodies)?

M.B. | 4:00 pm, October 30, 2009 | Link

 

(not sure why you say “Bad Mother” in the title… Mom and Dad BOTH make mistakes and need the solutions)
It is reassuring I guess to see soooo many other parents dealing with defiance in their kids.  Our 6 year old boy definitely responds better to “positive parenting” techniques, but has already been (sometimes it feels) distressed by our negative techniques, which basically feel abusive… I mean, who WOULD want to be said NO to 50 times in a day! and if you didn’t oblige you got grabbed by the arm and led away?!?!
Anyway, positive parenting is HARD WORK!!  It’s a constant chess game, and as Jeremy notes above, it doesn’t always work.  Were we perfect kids?
As for the the PhD who posed the question (with all due respect, believe me) I almost always find researchers are good at pointing out the problems, and finding more reasons for the problems, than providing good solutions.  But hey, we’re all human! http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/half_full/wp-includes/images/smilies/icon_wink.gif

Jeff | 9:45 pm, November 16, 2009 | Link

 

My kids are both in high school now, so it’s a long way back in my memory to scenes like this, which I know happened.  Yes, I did the grab and no, it didn’t work.  I seem to recall leaving my full cart and taking my children out of the store with me, feeling bad for the poor soul who would have to deal with the abandoned cart (seems there is always SOMETHING to feel bad about as a mom).  I didn’t get my shopping done, which angered me, but this also had a very real consequence for them.  The natural consequence for their unruly behavior, whining, or begging was that I was unable to do what I needed to do…and what I needed to do was buy groceries.  The consequence for them was that we got home without their favorite cereal or juice box.  The NEXT time we shopped I would remind them of the results of our last outing and somehow this seemed to work better than anything I tried.  You can imagine this was not a “one hit wonder” solution and needed to be repeated every now and then.  It served a few purposes: it gave me an alternative to the grab or, dare I say, the ever tempting swat on the behind (which I never agree with but admit having utilized on rare occasion); it provided natural consequences for unacceptable behavior that were very meaningful to the children (imagine leaving a beloved toy store with empty hands); it taught me that some things are more important than getting the shopping done in that instant.

Donna | 5:13 am, November 17, 2009 | Link

 

Talking the fortnightly supermarket shop with three children aged 6,5 and 2 is a challenge.  I always feel that I’m in danger of loosing my mind, my children or my temper.  If I manage to keep all three then I’m doing well.  Tactics that work:  We discuss expectations before we go in eg “remember to look out for other people in the shop and to stay where I can see you”,  they get to eat stuff on the way around — they can’t seem to eat and run at the same time.  This is a Good Thing.  The best trick is to give them jobs to do eg ” I need 3 of those blocks of cheese”,  “I need you each to put 2 tins of beans in the trolley”, “Can you find the cereal Daddy likes?” etc…  This keeps them busy and feeling important and definitely saves on misbehaviour.

Rachel | 1:56 pm, December 7, 2009 | Link

 

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