TTUAC: The Grocery Store Terrorist

To Train Up A Child, pp.

Okay, let’s get started:


How many times have we observed the grocery store arena? A devious little kid sits up in the command seat of the shopping cart exercising his “childhood rights” to unlimited self-indulgence. The parent fearfully but hopelessly steers around the tempting “trees of knowledge of good and evil.” Too late! The child spies the object of his unbridled lust. The battle is on. The child will either get what he wants or make the parent miserable. Either way, he conquers.

The object of his unbridled lust? Really? If I see a bag of chocolates while shopping and want to buy it, does that make it an “object of my unbridled lust” or does that term only apply to things children want? Because there’s really a huge double standard going on here. When at the grocery store, adults choose what to buy and buy it, but children, especially young children, have literally no way to do the same. If an adult sees something she wants, she can buy it (assuming she has the money). A child can’t.

I am not saying that a child should be allowed to choose and purchase whatever she wants while at the grocery. The child’s parent understands the limits of the budget while the child may not. Further, adults cannot, strictly speaking, buy anything they want. By the time a person reaches adulthood, she will (hopefully) have learned the importance of delayed gratification and the ability to make wise consumption choices. These are all things that parents must help children learn.

What I am saying is that it’s perfectly understandable for a child to become upset that she cannot buy things she wants at the grocery store, especially when she sees her parents picking things out to purchase. To the child, it looks like mommy and daddy can buy whatever they want but she is for some reason not allowed the same basic right. It looks profoundly unfair. When the child picks something out and asserts her right to buy it, she is not attempting to “conquer” her parents. Instead, she is attempting to model her parents and operate within the same social norms she sees them following. This is natural and should not be seen as a bad thing.

One father proudly told of how he fearlessly overcame by promising the child ice-cream if he would only wait until they left the store. Such compromises will simply confirm the child’s terrorist tactics. You are not gaining control of the child, he is gaining control of you. All children are trained, some carelessly or negligently, and some, with varied degrees of forethought. All parental responses are conditioning the child’s behavior, and are therefore training.

I’m pretty sure that Michael would say that I, too, confirm my child’s “terrorist tactics” when at the grocery store. You see, I almost always let Sally pick one thing out herself. I guide her choice by telling her if something is too expensive or by pointing her in a different direction if I think her selection is unwise. I frequently have to remind her that she is only allowed one thing, and must put the other two things she has chosen back. She is generally comforted by the fact that they’ll be there next time we come and she can pick one of them then. Some days, if I am in a hurry or trying to keep money tight, I tell her she can’t pick something out this time, and she is generally satisfied with that.

The thing is, I don’t see this as being controlled by Sally. I see it as each of us listening to the other’s needs. If I am understanding of my daughter’s natural desire to pick things out and purchase them, rather than interpreting that as “terrorist tactics” or an attempt to “conquer” me, she is generally understanding of my desire to stay on budget and create healthy eating habits. Believe it or not, when I listen to her she listens to me. And this shouldn’t be surprising! Further, I also think that teaching Sally about things like budgets and letting her make some shopping choices of her own is part of teaching her responsibility and preparing her for adulthood. Following Michael’s advice and “training” Sally until she knows better to ever ask for something she wants doesn’t do that at all.

I should note that even with my best efforts things don’t always work out perfectly. Just the other day I was at the post office with Sally when she spotted some beautifully decorated invitations, covered in glitter, and declared that she wanted them. They cost a full $5 and we had no need for them. Further, Sally has stickers and glitter at home. So I told her no, we couldn’t buy them. She had a meltdown and ended up curled in a corner crying angrily. I tried what I could to talk to her, but I ended up having to carry her out of the store screaming. Outside, I let her sit by the building and cry while I got Bobby ready to go, and after a few minutes she calmed down and got into her seat willingly. She closed her eyes and rested on the way to our next destination, and then all was forgotten. She acknowledged later that she hadn’t handled the situation well, but then, we all have our bad days.


Parents who purchase compliance through promise of reward are making their child a racketeer who is paid for protection. The child becomes the Mafia or union boss, and you, the “over the barrel” businessman. If you are just bargaining with a terrorist for one more day’s reprieve from anguish, you may then strike a favorable deal, but if you are training up a child, you need to reconsider your methods. This compromise method is the making of a bitter, undisciplined, fleshly child–and eventually, adult.

On one level, I do understand what Michael is saying. It sometimes can feel like negotiating with terrorists. It can seem like the child is laying down a threat—buy me this thing I want or I’ll kick and scream right here in the middle of the store and embarrass you in front of everyone. And it is indeed unwise to respond to every looming tantrum with “okay, okay, you can have whatever you want.” That doesn’t actually teach children long-term skills and, yes, can end up causing some serious problems as the child ages. However, I think Michael is missing two things here.

First, small children have few ways of getting what they want, and if they feel that they are not listened to, or that their desires are not valued, it may seem completely rational to take the nuclear route. As parents, that means we should try listen to our children and their needs and desires, be willing to give them things they request when it is reasonable to do so, try to explain to them why the can’t have something when that is the answer, and be prepared to endure the occasional tantrum. This is normal. Children are still learning to navigate the world and how to deal with disappointment, and tantrums are natural for small children and even a healthy part of their development. And, in my experience at least, when children feel that they are listened to and that their desires are valued, they are less likely to have tantrums (though this may also depend on temperament).

Second, it’s also important to remember that being a small child can be downright frustrating, and that tantrums are frequently not the result of threats carried out but rather simply the natural result of that pent up frustration. I think that sometimes parents impute conniving motives onto their children that are not actually there (which is not to say that children are never conniving). I would suggest that a small child who has a tantrum is usually not doing so in an attempt to embarrass his parents. In fact, I would go so far as to say that a small child who has a tantrum is frequently not actually doing so in an attempt to get what he wants. Instead, he’s having a tantrum because he’s angry and frustrated and hasn’t yet learned how to properly channel his emotions.

The part where I really get caught, though, is with Michael’s statement that “this compromise method is the making of a bitter, undisciplined, fleshly child—and eventually, adult.” Really? See, I guess I thought communication, cooperation, and compromise were critically important adult skills that children need to learn. Making a compromise with a child is not a bad thing. Rather, it is a healthy part of preparing them for adulthood. Yes, sometimes parents have to just say “no,” but not always. People who share a roof have an inherent need to compromise, and learning how to listen to each other’s desires and find a compromise that meets everyone’s needs is a critical component of healthy relationships.

I want to say one more thing before we leave the grocery store example. Parents need to understand that grocery stores are very difficult spaces for children. There are rows and rows of brightly colored and carefully advertised toys and treats, and children who are tired or hungry when visiting the grocery store can be especially prone to becoming cranky. Promising the child ice cream after the shopping trip is over is no more a “bribe” than is promising yourself a new book if you can meet a certain fitness goal. In other words, offering your child a reward for doing a good job in a difficult situation is absolutely not “making your child a racketeer who is paid for protection.”


I observed a father tell his small boy not to touch a particular object. Having been trained to ignore mild commands, the child picked it up. The father demanded, “Give it to me.” The child pretended not to hear. “Did you hear me? [Of course he did] Hand it to Daddy. [With more firmness] Johnnnieee, give it to Daddy, NOW!! [Another decibel higher—hasty—angry] JOHNNY!! Am I going to have to SPANK YOU?” By this time the father became aware of his embarrassing tone. He calmed his voice, and in an attempt to bring it to a conclusion he leaned way out and extended his hand, making it easier for Johnny to comply. Because of the angry voice and burning eyes, Johnny assumed the temporary posture of, “Oh well, there will be another day.” But, instead of meeting the humbled, groping father, he held the object in his general direction but down close to his body, forcing the father to advance even farther to retrieve it. The father, looking like a poor peasant receiving his necessary food from some condescending royalty, submitted to the child’s humiliation and reached to retrieve the object. And then, in a display of weakness, the father placed it out of the child’s reach.

What has Johnny learned from this episode? He has had his conviction reinforced that it is never necessary to obey a command the first, second, third, or fourth time. No one expects him to. He has learned it is permissible to grab anything within reach and to continue possessing it until the heat gets too great. He has learned not to respect authority, just strength (the day will come when he is the stronger one). By the father’s example, he has learned how to use anger. By the father’s advance to take the object from his hand, he has learned how to “get in the last shot” and maintain his defiance. That father was effectively training his small child to be a rebel.

What has the father learned? That little Johnny is just a “strong willed” child; that children go through unpleasant stages; that it is sometimes a very miserable, embarrassing thing to be a parent; that one has to watch a kid every minute and put things out of his reach; that the only things kids understand are force and anger? All of which are false. The father is reaping the harvest of his “mistraining.”

Michael’s view of children is absolutely horrifying. When a child quite naturally refuses to immediately give up some enticing object, he is “humiliating” his father? Really? And the level of graphic detail Michael uses to describe the scene—really? Michael views children as evil little creatures out to get their parents, evil little creatures who need to be forced into abject submission. I couldn’t disagree more fully. Children need guidance and children aren’t perfect, but children also need respect, and to be listened to. It seems as though Michael has never actually tried to see things through a child’s perspective—or rather, that he thinks he’s seeing things through the child’s perspective when he’s really seeing them through the lens of a sociopath.

I’ll tell you how I would have handled that situation, because it happens in our family quite often. Bobby is at that exact stage where he’s always finding things he shouldn’t have. Just the other day I found him carrying around a dead cricket! Generally, if I hold out my hand and ask for the offending object in a kind voice, Bobby will hand it over. Sometimes he refuses, though, giving me a “this is mine and I want it!” look. And I respect that. So what I do in that case is find something else for Bobby to play with and offer a trade. If he still won’t take me up on it, I simply take the object from him and then hand him a substitute or try to get him interested in another activity. This sort of redirection usually works, and he forgets that I took something from him at all. Sometimes of course it does not work, and Bobby bursts in to tears. Again, I respect that. I took something from him that he wanted, why shouldn’t he cry? So I try to comfort him or just let him cry it out, which generally does not take long. None of this involves any sort of “humiliation”—for either me or Bobby.

I don’t know why this is apparently so hard for Michael to understand, but when a child doesn’t want to give up a demanded object, the child is not attempting to humiliate the parents. Rather, the child quite naturally and rightly wants to retain possession of an object he finds interesting or fun to play with. The same is true of calling a child and expecting that child to immediately leave what he is doing and come running. When Bobby doesn’t come when I call, it is not that he is trying to humiliate me. It is that he is really into what he’s doing, whether that’s playing in the grass or fishing in the toilet bowl or looking at a board book. But for some reason, Michael appears to view any act on a child’s part short of immediate obedience as an attempt to humiliate a parent. This is absolutely mystifying.

And so ends chapter one. Michael finishes with this:

After we take a look at the nature of a child, much of the rest of this book will describe many positive training techniques.

While the first chapter is titled generically and is, I think, a sort of overview, the second chapter has an actual title: “Childish Nature: Understanding a child’s natural development.” I hope you’re excited as I am, because I think this next chapter will explain a lot.

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