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Handling Bad Behavior in Public Places: Alternatives to the Supermarket Squeeze

September 9, 2009 | The Main Dish | 0 comments

"Nobody trips over mountains. It is the small pebble that causes you to stumble. Pass all the pebbles in your path and you will find you have crossed the mountain."
–Author Unknown

My point in writing the Bad Mother: Real-Life Tales of Imperfect Parenting post was not to give instruction in what to do when our kids' challenge us in public places, but to point out that we all make mistakes. It is in understanding those mistakes (and resolving to do better) that we redeem our not-so-great parenting.

However, the over-whelming response to the posting can be summarized by this comment:

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 command (perhaps with a quiet reasonable talk later at home) is all that can be done, no?

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I do have some suggestions for handling bad behavior in public places, which I'll get to below, about how to handle misbehavior in public places. But before I make my science-informed suggestions, I'd like to point out that having good research behind an idea doesn't necessarily mean that it will work for you and your kid. Also, it might not work for that stranger in the grocery store whose child is yelling, "WHY WOULD A MOTHER HURT HER CHILD'S BODY?!" as mine did. To quote Ayelet Waldman, who literally wrote the book on being labeled a "Bad Mother:"

"Another parent's different approach raises the possibility that you've made a mistake with your child. We simply can't tolerate that, because we fear that any mistake, no matter how minor, could have devastating consequences. So we proclaim the superiority of our own choices. We've lost sight of the fact that people have preferences."

And also, I would add, those preferences often reflect the best choices for our children.

"As a parent," Waldman continues, "I am absolutely certain of only one thing: my own fallibility."

And that is exactly my point with this new Half Full feature about imperfect parenting: we all make mistakes, and though the stakes are indeed high, the consequences are usually not devastating, nor are they uncorrectable. Most are pebbles, not mountains — little stumbles in the road, not major spills. It is a beautiful thing to show your kids how you make mistakes and then learn from them, to teach children how to change their course.

But on to the suggestions and solutions. The best way to handle grocery-store misbehavior is, of course, to prevent it in the first place, perhaps by engaging your children in math games while you shop. But we all already know that prevention always the best policy, and we also already know that at the end of a long day, that often brilliant multi-tasking part of our brain starts to short-circuit, and it is no longer possible to entertain the smaller, crazier people in our vicinity while we make sure we get the least expensive yet most organic versions of everything on our list.

Here is what I try to do, based on the research I'm steeped in, when my kids are making me want to hurl myself off a cliff:

  1. Practice Mindfulness. If you are going to pick only one thing to practice, pick this. If you haven't read Losing my Mindfulness or this post on meditation, they'll get you started.
  2. Be Empathetic. Once I know what beliefs and emotions are behind my kids' bad behavior, it is a million times easier to craft an effective response. Why is Fiona throwing things in the grocery cart? Is she bored? Craving my attention? Remember that often kids don't know why they are doing something, so just asking them outright might not work. But I've learned over time that when my kids are acting really big (screaming, for example) they are often feeling very small. Emotion coaching is the way to hone our ability to empathize with our kids; it will also make them better at identifying themselves why they feel the way they do. (If you read that post on Emotion Coaching, don't miss Karen's comment, which I think is really important.
  3. Employ the ERN method. When I'm being tested, my knee-jerk reaction is often to start bribing: "If you guys behave well for 10 more minutes we'll go get ice cream" or threatening: "If you do that one more time, you are going to have to sit in the car by yourself." I've written before about the problem with threats and bribes, and about the solution: expressing Empathy, Rationale, and Not-being-so-bossy. Research shows that asking your kids for compliance using these three things works better in both the short AND the long-run.

Readers also had some great suggestions for ways that they handle public misbehavior:

  • When our usually reasonable child starts 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.
  • One thing that I have found that HELPS is to prepare my 3 year old son before we go in to whatever situation [by telling him] that I need his cooperation. I ask him if he is able to do it, and 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.
  • 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.

There are a lot more comments on this posting with more suggestions. Please keep adding your comments and asking your questions!

Warmly,

© 2009 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

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