When most people think of the word discipline what they mean is punishment. However, the real work as a parent is to understand the word discipline for what it is.
Discipline is understanding rules and limits. A well-disciplined child seldom or never needs to be punished. A well-disciplined son or daughter knows the rules and expectations in any given situation, and follows them willingly.
So we will look at several different aspects of discipline: informing your child of rules or expectations, providing alternatives for possible obstacles, and giving the appropriate response when your child breaks the rules.
Discipline at the grocery store
A common place where parents feel the need to discipline or punish their child is the grocery store. The grocery store is a source of great stimulation for your young child.
Put yourself in your child’s shoes. You are surrounded by bright colorful advertising, within your reach are all of your favorite foods and snacks, and everywhere you look there is something new you have never seen before.
As a child this is paradise! They naturally want to experience everything. So we will focus on these three aspects of discipline in the grocery store: informing your child of rules and expectations, providing alternatives to obstacles, and responding appropriately when the rules are broken.
Inform your child of rules and expectations
Children do not naturally understand how to behave in every situation. They are born curious and inquisitive and active. However, not every situation tolerates a childlike sense of curiosity and activity.
The grocery store, with all of its enticements: sounds and smells, and all within reach, needs its own special set of rules.
We must think about what is safe for our child in this public place, and we will need to think about the general expectations.
First, we want our child to be safe and stay near us. Depending on how crowded the space is, this can mean that they must hold on to the cart, or ride in it. Or they must, if they are a little older, stay where they can see you and you can see them. Some parents might use the words “stay close,” but your child will need a clear definition of what that is.
Second, there must be a rule about what they can touch.
But the rule cannot be “don’t touch anything!” That is not the rule in a grocery store for anyone else, so why limit your child in that odd way? The grocery store is a hands-on experience.
Think about ways that your child will be allowed to interact with his environment.
Finally, set parameters on what they can contribute to the cart. We don’t want our child simply piling sugary cereals into the cart. Instead, give them options within healthy parameters. “I am buying some fruit today for us. What fruit would you like to buy?” Or, “Let’s eat a new kind of cheese this week. I will show them to you, and we will each pick one.”
Allowing choice and participation satisfies their need to engage and explore, and makes them a partner in the trip, instead of an aggravation.
Provide alternatives to obstacles
Many parents have been shocked and embarrassed when their child has pointed out prominent features of another person. “Mom, that man is so fat!” Or, “Why does that woman have red spots all over her face?”
Seeing many different people is a feature, not a flaw, of a trip outside the house.
So help your child anticipate this by reminding them that you should hear their questions first. They should never point or shout out to another person they don’t know.
This rule will save a lot of people from potential embarrassment.
Another obstacle in the grocery store is that so many things are – intentionally – placed within reach. You know this in advance, so there is no excuse for not preparing your child.
Instead, set guidelines that ensure safety and supervision. For instance, you could enforce the expectation, “ask me before you touch something,” or “point to the thing you want to hold and I will hand it to you.”
This way your child gets a rich educational experience in the store, with your supervision.
Some groceries allow customers to eat selected fruits or vegetables as they shop – this is a great way to satisfy your child’s curiosity and keep them involved. Just remember to bring wipes.
Respond appropriately when rules are broken
Threatening to hit your child is the last resort of an exhausted or unimaginative parent. Let’s not put ourselves in a position to make this threat.
Instead, pulling back on some of the privileges of the trip is a better way to discipline your child.
For instance, you might remind your child, “When you walk away from the cart, I can’t see you, and that’s not safe. If it happens again, you will ride in the cart for the rest of the trip.”
Wise parents add, “Do you understand?” to make sure their message has been received.
(Some parents end these statements with, “Okay?” but that word is definitely NOT what they mean. Your child does NOT get the final say in these matters, and you don’t need their “okay.”)
Or if your child is putting things in the cart without permission, you might inform them of how this makes work for others at the end of the trip, when employees have to put those items back on the shelves.
An appropriate consequence for this behavior, if repeated, is reducing the number of items your child gets to select during the trip. “If you put another item in without my permission, I won’t let you help choose the orange juice.”
Help your child value self-discipline
By providing expectations, planning for obstacles, and administering rational consequences, your child can become a partner, or at least a joyful companion, on your grocery trip.
It may take a few more minutes to get through the store this way. But it is far superior to handing your child a screen and having them in another place mentally while you do the work of the household. Enlist your willing partner and make the trip enjoyable for both of you.
Have questions about why your teenager is angry all the time? Or wondering how to set parenting goals? Struggling with single parenting? Or maybe you just need to talk? Sakina Issa is available for in person or remote counseling.