The Store is a Great Place to Raise a Child

Several weeks ago my wife overheard two women at a local department store talking. “What’s that awful sound…is that a child or a toy?” the one asked the other.  “Whatever it is, it’s coming our way,” replied the other.  “It is a child, and it sounds like someone’s killing him!” exclaimed the first.  “I’ve never heard anything like that before; that child sure is mad!” the second said.

My wife and I had become separated in our shopping, and the sound the women heard was my two-year old son, Spencer, exercising his vocal cords.  He had had it with me, and was letting me know it in no uncertain terms.

Spencer had determined it was time to get out of the shopping cart.  When I prevented him from getting out, he upped the ante by pushing my hand away and whining.  A paternal ‘no-no’ only frustrated him further, and, like a peacock displaying its colorful plumage, my son began showing his true colors.

A few seconds of trying to calm him by distracting him proved fruitless, so I lifted him out of the cart and made a beeline for the front door, passing my wife and the two women (who did not seem the least bit amused – well, I wasn’t exactly amused myself) on the way to the car.

Once in the car, Spencer only screamed louder.  He was still pouting when my wife came out, and we made our way to the grocery story.  Not surprisingly, Spencer and I repeated our interaction after no more than a minute in the produce section.  As before, I carried him back out to the car, and we spent another twenty minutes in the car, him providing the entertainment and me doing my best to ignore him.

Our next stop for the evening was at a restaurant.  I had just poured Spencer some Root Beer out of my cup when he began to whimper…he wanted MY cup.  When I said ‘No,” he raised his voice and uttered his final whine of the night, for as I moved to pick him up, he must have sensed what was next…the car.  He stopped whining, began drinking from HIS cup, and the rest of the evening went smoothly.

I wish I could claim that I am always this patient, always this consistent, always this successful.  The truth is, I’m not, and I’m sure Spencer will continue to whine and tantrum both in public and private (like your child, he’s not too picky).  However, I relay the story to illustrate the power of EXTINCTION.

Extinction occurs with misbehavior just as it did with the dinosaurs (though extinguishing dinosaurs must’ve been much easier than this parenting stuff).  Extinction is a term describing the disappearance of a behavior when the behavior no longer pays off.  It is a technique commonly employed in the area of Behavior Modification, which is an outgrowth of a popular psychological theory called Behaviorism. According to this theory, kids misbehave for many reasons, but perhaps the simplest explanation is this: BECAUSE IT WORKS TO GIVE THEM WHAT THEY WANT OR NEED.  Furthermore, the misbehavior costs them less and benefits them more than appropriate behavior might.

Misbehavior is largely the result of learning, and kids are certainly quick learners.  Spencer has learned that whining and tantrumming have paid off in the past.  In other words, his tantrumming has been rewarded because his parents have given in.  Our efforts are now focused on removing any type of reward for his tantrumming, and instead rewarding his compliant behavior.

By removing any positive benefit Spencer might gain from the misbehavior, we are reducing its pay off.  If we do this right, it shouldn’t be long before he can sit quietly in the cart at the store.

When working to extinguish misbehaviors in your child, keep these pints in mind:

  1. You will definitely be inconvenienced in your efforts.  You will only be successful to the degree you are willing to make this a top priority (e.g., you must be willing to leave your cart-full of groceries behind).
  2. Realize that things will likely get worse before they get better (since your child is used to getting his/her way, (s)he will likely keep at you…because it’s worked in the past.  Hang in there…ride out the storm…have confidence in the process).
  3. Respond immediately and consistently to your child’s misbehavior (remove your child from any setting that might be reinforcing, then use a generous dose of ignoring).
  4. Do not talk to nor soothe your child while (s)he is misbehaving (these will only aggravate or reinforce the problem…soothing and talking are for later).
  5. Lavish your child with praise for appropriate behavior (make appropriate behavior pay off).
  6. Don’t hit or scream at your child (EXTINCTION should always take a back seat to SAFETY; if you’re feeling out of control, take time to cool down…your parenting work can wait.).

Teaching children appropriate behavior, as does all good parenting, requires concerted effort.  Taking the time to work with your child may not be convenient, but like a wise investment, it will pay rich dividends in the (child’s) future.

So next time you see a parent firmly but gently “escorting” a misbehaving child out of the store, cast a knowing smile their way, for some serious parenting is going on.  After all, department and grocery stores are popular places where parents raise their children…and where children raise their parents.

 

Steven M. Gentry, PhD., is a Child & Family Psychologist and the Executive Director of
Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah