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How Black Parents ‘Love’ Their Children the Way Racist America ‘Loves’ Us

dissBy Dr. Stacey Patton

It’s National Child Abuse Prevention Month again and so I’m getting down to work.  The more I do anti-spanking activism in Black communities, I keep hearing a constant refrain: “We whoop our children out of love,” and “We whoop our children to keep them out of prison.” 

I understand that parents are doing the best they can with the tools and resources at their disposal and so I’m learning to practice loving kindness and greater empathy in my work.  But it is clear to me that far too many Black parents “love” their children the way that America “loves” us.  And the ways in which we treat our children’s bodies MUST be understood within the social and political context of white supremacy.  Meaning that white supremacy REQUIRES black people to participate in the dehumanization process of their children.

And we’ve been doing a great job.

We are a group that has adopted and fiercely defended a hurtful tactic that is meant to protect our children, not savage them.  I understand that whooping children has long functioned as a kind of defense mechanism, but it is also a function of a parent’s own rage and self-hatred at being forced to endure living in a society that questions your humanity from the womb to the grave.

But when we hurt our children’s bodies, what kind of message does that send to them and to those people in the world who fundamentally hate them?  It says to them – “I have no right to bodily integrity,” “My voice doesn’t matter,” “My experience doesn’t matter,” “I should expect violence,” “I should expect people to hurt me,” “I am a problem,” “I am feared,” “I am hated.”

“I whoop you because I love you” was a constant refrain I heard out of the mouth of my own adoptive mother and elders in the community where I grew up.  Now that I’m an adult and I continue to do the hard work of emotional and spiritual healing, I’ve come to realize that all those whoopings I received as a child may have been administered by my adoptive mother, but they did not originate with her. 

That kind of painful punishment originated with white supremacy, a history of cultural and physical violence that devaluated black life at every turn.  From slavery through Jim Crow, from the school-to-prison pipeline to racial profiling, the innocence of black children has always been a dream deferred.  Childhood has been one of many things denied to black kids and this message has surely entered into black homes.  So has the yearning to protect our young from the pernicious impact of racism.  The intensity of this fear and the focus on insulating black children from the dangers of racism is part and parcel to the history of blacks in America.

As for those who argue that whooping a child will keep him or her out of jail . . . Welp, let’s see how effective that parenting strategy has been for black folks since the post-emancipation period and the rise of the carceral state.  Consider the following facts:

We keep whooping our children while people of color make up about 30 percent of the United States’ population and account for 60 percent of those imprisoned.

We keep whooping our children even as 1 in every 9 black men is incarcerated in comparison to 1 in every 106 white men.

We keep whooping our children even as, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1 in 3 black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime.

We keep whooping our children even as individuals of color have a disproportionate number of encounters with law enforcement, indicating that racial profiling continues to be a problem.  

We keep whooping our children even as the Department of Justice found that blacks are approximately three times more likely to be searched during a traffic stop than white motorists, and blacks are twice as likely to be arrested and almost four times as likely to experience the use of force during encounters with the police.

We keep whooping our children even though municipalities like Ferguson, Missouri target black communities with traffic stops, court fines, arrests and harrassment for low-level offenses to raise revenue.

We keep whooping our children even as students of color face harsher punishments in school than their white peers, leading to a higher number of youth of color incarcerated.

We keep whooping our children even though they represent more than 70 percent of those involved in school-related arrests or referrals to law enforcement, and make up two-fifths of confined youth today.

We keep whooping our children even though recent data by the Department of Education shows that African American students are arrested far more often than their white classmates, making up more than 70 percent of arrested or referred students.

We keep whooping our children as harsh school punishments, from suspensions to arrests, lead to high numbers of youth of color coming into contact with the juvenile-justice system and at an early age are sent to adult prisons.

We keep whooping our children even as the number of women incarcerated has increased by 800 percent over the last three decades, and women of color have been disproportionately represented, with African American women being three times more likely than white women to be incarcerated.

We keep whooping our children even as the war on drugs has been waged primarily in communities of color where people of color are more likely to receive higher offenses even though they are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites, but they have higher rate of arrests.

We keep whooping our children even as they remain overrepresented in the nation’s foster care system, which has become a breeding ground for the juvenile justice and adult prison system.  In some states, like California, nearly 70 percent of adult prisoners have had contact with the foster care system as a result of child abuse.

The abuse and control and mass incarceration of black bodies in America is tied to this country’s racist roots, which is tied to profiting from the sweat and muscle of black bodies.  The fact is, black people are worth more in prison than free.  It is absurd to think that all these disparities I mentioned above persist because black people don’t whoop their children enough.

Irrespective of the reasons – rage induced by racism, a desire to save children from the streets and a jail cell, a yearning to ward off black death, a responsibility to protect – the abuse hurts!  Not to mention, “bad parenting” is used to justify mass incarceration, schools suspensions, splitting apart of families by child welfare professionals, and yet the abuse that purportedly protects inadvertently exacerbates the pernicious harms of racism.


In America, Black Children Don’t Get To Be Children

This piece was originally published in The Washington Post on November 26, 2014.

by Stacey Patton

Black America has again been reminded that its children are not seen as worthy of being alive — in part because they are not seen as children at all, but as menacing threats to white lives.

America does not extend the fundamental elements of childhood to black boys and girls. Black childhood is considered innately inferior, dangerous and indistinguishable from black adulthood. Black children are not afforded the same presumption of innocence as white children, especially in life-or-death situations.

Note officer Darren Wilson’s description of his confrontation with Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, Mo. In his grand jury testimony, Wilson described Brown as a “demon,” “aggressive,” and said that Brown had taunted him by saying, “You are too much of a p—- to shoot me.” (Similarly, George Zimmerman told police that teenager Trayvon Martin threatened him during their fight: “You’re gonna die tonight.”)

The 6-foot-4, 210-pound Wilson told the jury, “I felt like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan. . . . That’s how big he felt and how small I felt just from grasping his arm.” Wilson claimed that Brown charged at him through a hail of bullets before he shot him in the head. The official history of that night paints Wilson as an innocent white child was so threatened by a big, black beast that his only option was to use lethal force.

In announcing the grand jury’s decision not to indict Wilson, prosecuting attorney Robert P. McCulloch assaulted Brown’s character and recalled, in morbid detail, conflicting accounts of how Brown’s body reacted to being shot. One unnamed witnesses testified that Brown was in “a full charge,” with his fists clenched or at his sides.

Such descriptions, so similar to 19th-century defenses of lynching, are invoked each time a black child is gunned down in America.

In 1955, after 14-year-old Emmett Till was beaten and killed by a group of white men, one of his killers said Till “looked like a man.” I’ve found this pattern in news accounts of lynchings of black boys and girls from 1880 to the early 1950s, in which witnesses and journalists fixated on the size of victims who ranged from 8 to 19 years old. These victims were accused of sexually assaulting white girls and women, stealing, slapping white babies, poisoning their employers, fighting with their white playmates, or protecting black girls from sexual assault at the hands of white men. Or they were lynched for no reason at all.

During his closing arguments in the 2013 trial in which Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter, defense attorney Mark O’Mara put a concrete slab and two life-size cardboard cutouts in front of the jury box. One cutout depicted Zimmerman, 29, who is 5-foot-7 and more than 200 pounds, and the other Martin, 17, who was 5-foot-11 and 158 pounds.

O’Mara argued that the concrete slab could be deployed as a weapon. And the cardboard cutouts helped him illustrate the size disparity between Zimmerman and Martin. He used computer animation to try to convince the jury panel that the clinically obese freelance neighborhood watchman reasonably feared for his life during his fight with the taller Martin, thus justifying Zimmerman shooting the teenager in self-defense on the night of Feb. 6, 2012, in Sanford, Fla. Throughout the trial, Zimmerman’s defense portrayed Martin as a “young man.”

In his rebuttal, prosecutor John Guy repeatedly referred to Martin as a “boy” in an attempt to restore him to childhood and carve out a space for him as an innocent youth who feared for his life as he was stalked and then attacked by a grown man.

Guy asked the jury: “Isn’t that every child’s worst nightmare, to be followed on the way home in the dark by a stranger? Isn’t that every child’s worst fear?” Recall that Martin, in his last cellphone conversation with his friend Rachel Jeantel, said he was being followed by a “creepy-ass cracker.”

That trial was not just about determining Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence, but about determining whether Martin was a child.

This played out again in the fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice on Nov. 22. The boy, who was reported as being “tall for his age,” was playing outside a recreation center in Cleveland when he was seen sitting on a swing playing with a BB gun. In a 911 recording, a witness said: “The guy keeps pulling it in and out. . . . It’s probably fake, but he’s pointing it at everybody. He’s probably a juvenile.”

It’s unclear whether the dispatcher relayed to the responding officers that they might be dealing with a child playing with a BB gun. But when the officers found Tamir, they said he did not put up his hands when ordered to do so. Instead, he allegedly reached for the gun in his waistband and was shot.

The family’s attorney, Timothy Kucharski, questioned why the officers did not act with more caution. “The police have to address these things in the proper context,” he said. “This is a 12-year-old boy. This is not a grown man. I’d think you would handle situations with children differently than you would with an adult. They don’t fully understand everything that is going on.”

In that instance, “the officer had no clue he was a 12-year-old,” said Jeff Follmer, the president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association. “He was concentrating more on the hands than on the age.”

The overestimation of a black child’s age begins even before age 12. A study published this year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology — which long ago published racist studies on black children — linked the higher use of force by police on black youth to the common perception that, by age 10, they are less innocent. The study also cited Department of Education data that said black students are far more likely to be harshly disciplined at school than students of other races who commit the same infractions.

Regardless of the case, the police officers’ actions in these cases are consistent and predictable: This was not a child. He was a threat. I was afraid and had to defend myself. The child, stripped of childhood, is framed as a menace that overrides probable cause.

The dangers black children face — from being profiled and targeted for arrest and incarceration — are firmly rooted in history.

After the Civil War, the establishment of political equality for millions of newly freed black people — through the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments — meant that a new generation of black children would become adults with equal rights. And so devaluing black children became central to maintaining racism and inequality in American life.

In the Jim Crow era, black children grew up free citizens and free laborers. Unlike their parents and grandparents, they had no memory of slavery. And so new strategies emerged to contain them, to cast doubt on their rights and intellect, and to demean the value of their labor and their very beings.

Turn-of-the-century pediatric literature features doctors describing how black children’s bodies developed differently from those of white children. According to white researchers, the black fetus had a smaller brain, a wider nose, thicker lips, and “simian” hands and feet. Psychologists tested and compared the behaviors of white and black infants and concluded that black babies  were born innately inferior and animalistic. Through brain measurements, doctors and anthropologists set out to prove that black children’s frontal lobes closed up during adolescence. And when that happened, their brains stopped learning and their genitals became over-developed and a sexual threat to whites. Some politicians openly advocated for the castration of black boys, and in North Carolina, thousands of black girls were forcibly sterilized. 

Jim Crow was far more extensive and damaging for black children than everyday encounters at segregated schools and lunch counters would suggest. As objects of experimentation by doctors or abuse by the state, babies and other children were exposed to the dehumanizing and violent logic of racial classification and domination. Black parents and educators tried to mitigate these harms and protect their young. Unfortunately, they experienced more setbacks and challenges than successes, but their efforts reveal how even parenting came under assault in the Jim Crow era — and became an important area of resistance.

If a white life cycle features innocence, growth, civility, responsibility and becoming an adult, blackness is characterized as the inversion of that. Not only are black children cast as adults but, just as perversely, black adults are stuck in a limbo of childhood, viewed as irresponsible, uncivil, criminal, innately inferior. Through the incarceration of black adults and the disproportionate placement of black children into foster care, the state acts as a parent, while simultaneously abdicating its responsibility to invest in children of color. In the Ferguson case, the state is ostensibly saying: We have no responsibility to protect your children.

When black parents read about the killings of Jordan Davis, Darius Simmons, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Renisha McBride and so many others, they are forced to instill fear in their children — warning them about the dangers of white people and the police. Such words of caution are not enough to overcome the centuries of attitudes toward and policies behind white killing of black children.

The legions of young people protesting the Ferguson travesty in schools, on social media and in the streets are trying to ensure that children of color get to be children — and that they live to see adulthood, too.

Why You Should Never Spank Your Daughter

This piece was originally published on

by Dr. Stacey Patton

I’m not saying that you’re a bad parent if you spank your child/ren. But if you are raising a daughter, you might want to know how your decision to use physical punishment might alter the architecture of her brain and negatively impact her sexual development.

For nearly two decades, there’s been extensive research on how physical discipline, unpredictable environments, and chronic stress impacts children’s brain development. Constant hollering, belittling, threatening, and hitting your child sets off biochemical responses to stress that can change the physiology of your child’s brain and lay the groundwork for a low I.Q., a quick temper, aggressive and delinquent behavior, depression, suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, an inability to regulate impulses, dysfunctional relationships, and early intrusive sexual thoughts and activities.

Earlier this summer I presented at a two-day conference on corporal punishment hosted by the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine where I was introduced to the research of Dr. Leslie Seltzer, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin’s Child Emotion Lab. Seltzer and her colleagues are part of a cohort of researchers that have been studying how stressful parent-child contact can overload a child’s body with certain hormones. One of those is cortisol, a hormone that helps the body prepare to fight, flee, or freeze in response to danger or even the threat of danger. Children who are spanked don’t have the option to flee or fight – they must submit to the pain and violence without grabbing, blocking, or defending against the assault to their body. Corporal punishment triggers the release of cortisol.

Having elevated levels of cortisol for a short period of time is okay, but if this fear response is experienced repeatedly it can damage a young brain and lead to diseased neural networks. Researchers also say that repeated elevations of cortisol can result in a child becoming sensitized to fear, making it easier for them to experience danger and pain and normalize abnormal behavior. Think about how many adults who were hit as children can’t remember the trauma and fear they actually felt at the time but say that being hit was a “good” for them because they’ve only held onto the rationalizations used to justify the violence against them.

In her lab experiments where she placed adolescent boys and girls in a stressful situation and then took samples of their saliva and urine, Seltzer surprisingly found that girls with histories of harsh physical discipline didn’t experience the cortisol rush that we would expect. Instead, that group had a huge spike of oxytocin, known as the “comfort” or “cuddle” or “love” hormone that causes people to feel emotionally bonded to each other, and acts as the body’s built-in counter to stress.

Seltzer and her colleagues discovered that when placed under a stressful situation, the oxytocin levels in girls with a history of harsh physical discipline nearly tripled from their baseline, which was already three times higher than the baseline levels of girls that had no history of harsh physical discipline. (The researchers found no differences in hormonal changes in the boys they compared.)

Oxytocin is a powerful hormone that gets released into the bloodstream when you experience warm feelings like love, trust, security, attachment, comfort, and protection. Our levels of oxytocin surge when we hug, kiss, have sex, give birth, and breastfeed. A surge in this hormone known for sexual pleasure is not the sort of thing you expect to happen to a girl when she is threatened or hit by a parent or guardian. 

So how does this happen, and why is this a hormonal recipe for disaster for girls?

When you threaten or hit your daughter, her limbic system – the part of that brain that controls emotions, memories, and arousal – gets activated into a state of hyper-vigilance and readiness to respond to danger. Her amygdala gets the message that danger is coming and generates an emotional response that releases oxytocin. Over time, as her brain develops, this ripple of hormonal changes can permanently wire her brain to cope with this harsh treatment. Her nervous system will run on a continuous high because she will constantly anticipate more threats.

Hitting your daughter can not only impair her sense of trust and self-confidence, it is embarrassing, humiliating, and sends confusing messages about boundaries and her right to bodily integrity. Eventually, your daughter may experience emotional and cognitive numbing as she internalizes distress and aggression. Her self-esteem will be wounded and her spirit will be broken even as she develops a “hard” or “tough” or a so-called “strong black woman” exterior at an early age. 

Researchers have found that adolescent and teenage girls who have histories of harsh physical discipline have been found to have higher levels of intrusive sexual thoughts, consumption of porn, and masturbate more frequently. Having higher levels of oxytocin causesearly puberty and removes inhibitions around her decisions to engage in risky sexual activity. The stress of being threatened and hit has damaged her brain and so she may struggle to compartmentalize her sexual preoccupations, control her impulses, and refrain from temptation.

If you repeatedly subject your daughter to threats and hitting, she might end up coping with this stress by seeking out ways to escape it. She may find other forms of support, namely relationships which might put her at risk for engaging in risky sexual behavior, teen pregnancy, and choosing aggressive, violent partners later in life.

The irony is that so many parents whoop their kids thinking it will keep them from being “bad” and prevent these very behaviors! All children need discipline, but not the kind that rewires their physical and mental hard drives for at-risk behaviors or damages their ability to function in healthy ways.

Spare the rod. TALK with your child. LISTEN to them. Hit the keyboard and learn some things about child development so that you won’t place unreasonable expectations on your kid(s). Try to understand, even when their behavior makes you angry or scared. They’re growing up and don’t know what to do. As their parent, you are growing up with them. Hitting, cursing, yelling, and threatening damages that precious parent-child emotional bond, and potentially causes the kind of problems you’re just trying to prevent in the first place.

This article focused on girls, but hitting is equally damaging to boys. In my next piece I will discuss research that shows how boys who are hit by their mothers also experience brain alterations that put them at an increased risk of hitting their significant others later in life.

How To Talk To Children About Mike Brown, Ferguson & Matters of Race

Dear Mother Wit,

Because of all of the news about the cop killings of Mike Brown, Eric Garner and John Crawford, my son is having nightmares about being murdered by police. How do I make him feel safe when he feels like his skin puts him in clear and present danger by law enforcement? What’s the appropriate way to talk to a kindergartener about racial profiling, police brutality and the criminalizing of Black bodies and reassure him while preparing him adequately for the reality of how he’ll be perceived as a threat?

— Ferguson Nightmares

Dear Ferguson Nightmares,

Alas, this is the plight of Black and brown parents here in America: we have to raise our children to live within and honor a system that, at every turn, consistently reminds us that we are not respected by it. This becomes glaringly apparent when protests against police brutality reach fever pitch and we Black folk voice our frustrations with tactics that target our families.

There are protests (like that surrounding the death of Mike Brown, whose shooting death by a cop sparked mass demonstrations in Ferguson), there are angry demands (like the call for a change in policing tactics after the killing of Eric Garner, whose strangling death at the hands of police officers was caught on cell phones) and there’s lots of chatter about how incredulous these cases are (like the shooting death of John Crawford in a crowded Walmart, while he was holding a toy rifle police thought was real). All that anger about the injustice of it all plays out in one big, loud, emotional stereo on our TVs, radios, social media, and haunts our dinner table conversations, and rightfully so. We’re crying out and trying to figure out how to cope with it all—maybe even figure out how to fix this thing.

The problem is that those emotional conversations often happen in front of our kids, sans the filter necessary to help them process it all. We’re talking around them, but not to them. The result: a 5-year-old child is left to consider all the scary details of these incidents—shootings, chokings, being murdered for playing with toys, riots, tear gassings, scary police officers who kill people for being Black—all on his own. And since five-year-olds are developmentally incapable of reasoning and separating fantasy from reality, it is only natural that they would gather up all the anger, emotion and snippets of information and conclude they and the people they love are in imminent danger.

How do you help your son deal with it all? Consider these steps:

Encourage conversation and listen to him.

It’s important you give up that old Black folk saying, “Children are to be seen, not heard,” and give your son the opportunity to talk about it all. He doesn’t have to be in adult conversation, but he does need for you to give him the chance to express his fears and beliefs in a safe space where his feelings are validated, he doesn’t have to check his emotions and he can count on the person who loves him most—his mother—to help him process it all. For instance, if he says, “Police are bad, they kill Black people and they are going to kill me, too,” you can counter that by acknowledging that there are police officers who do bad things to people for a number of reasons, but that an overwhelming number of them are there to protect and help people. If you really listen to what he’s saying, you can allay his fears, dispel what is unreasonable and give him the tools he needs to cope.

Answer his questions about the high-profile police brutality cases with facts.

Remember: your child’s understanding of what happened to kids like Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin and the like comes from a myriad of sources—family, friends, nightly news, fellow 5-year-olds—and the “facts” can come fast and furious, sometimes contradicting one another, sometimes embellished. It’s important, then, to let him both say what he knows and ask questions. Then answer him with basic facts and honest, developmentally-appropriate conversation that considers his feelings about the matter. Acknowledge that the details are scary, but that the chances of something like that happening to him really are low. Remind him, too, that you don’t have all the answers and that this world is not perfect, but that you are going to do everything within your power to protect him, love him, and be there for him if he feels upset or doesn’t understand what is going on.

Monitor what he sees and hears.

News coverage of both Eric Garner and Mike Brown’s deaths is graphic and full of imagery that is wholly inappropriate for kindergarteners. Simply put: seeing a dead body laying in the street or watching a man be choked to death is not something 5-year-olds should be consuming. Ever. If your child has seen it already, explain to him what happened, and put it into age-appropriate context for him: “I’m really sorry you saw that; I’m sure it was scary to watch. We are going to wish good thoughts for their families and hope that anyone who did anything wrong gets punished for it.” Then, here comes the important part: turn off the TV and radio and let your child get the information he needs about the case directly from you. Remember: the news is meant for adults. It’s up to parents to craft news into age-appropriate conversation.

Get him involved.

Racism, police brutality and racial profiling show us the absolute worst in people; the shock, sadness, hostility and anger can be heartbreaking and overwhelming, even for adults. But we know that raising our voices—whether by signing petitions, protesting or exercising our right to vote—helps not only contextualize ways to fix what’s broken, but also gives us the opportunity to work with others to make some kind of difference. This is cathartic. Give your son the chance to do the same: consider helping him write a letter to the families of Mike Brown or Eric Garner. Let him listen to music that speaks to social issues—think Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” Raheem DeVaughn’s “Nobody Wins a War,” or Jill Scott’s “My Petition”—and discuss their context. Share books and poems of hope: think Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise,” or Langston Hughes’ “I, Too, Sing America,” and talk to him about their meanings, too. Let him know that ours is a mighty people that has come a long way, and with each passing generation, we’ve gotten stronger—and it is possible to continue doing so.  With your love, care and attention, surely, he will come around—and be the better for it.


Taming Out-Of-Control Playdates, Without the Smackdown

Dear Mother Wit,

My 8-year-old is friends with a white classmate whose parents let her do just any ol’ thing when my daughter goes to their home for playdates, like leave toys all in the floor, snack in her room and play kickball in the living room. If my daughter pulled that mess here, I’d tear her little behind up! But now her friend is coming over and I’m thinking that if she tries me, we’re going to have some problems around here. I don’t want to snatch someone else’s kid. How do I get her and my daughter to behave by my rules while they’re playing in my house? —  I’m No Playdate Punk

Dear I’m No Playdate Punk,

Let’s be clear: there isn’t an 8-year-old on the earth who’s going to be the model citizen when she’s got a playmate at the house ripping and running and having a blast alongside her. Kids are prone to shenanigans. Shenanigans will most definitely be had during a play date.

In all the excitement, your child may be tempted to temporarily lose her mind and act a fool, too, right alongside her partner. Hitting your daughter for being a kid with another kid is overkill. Really, there’s no transgression they could make in the house that would warrant you pulling out the belt to make a point that in playing, they’ve broken some of your rules. Stopping them from playing together while they get a little act right in them is more than enough punishment, I promise.

That’s not to say that your kid should be allowed to go hog wild when company’s over. It just means you should consider approaching the playdate a little differently when it’s at your house, that’s all. Do what I do with my grandkids: Lay down the law with your daughter before company arrives, and when her little friend steps through the door, sit the two of them down and go over the ground rules again: No running through the house, no tossing balls in the living room, no eating outside of the kitchen, etc.

I make very clear to my grandchildren and their guests that the rules don’t change just because they’ve got friends over, and that they’re all to be on their best behavior—to both set an example for the kids visiting, and to stay out of trouble. Somewhere in the conversation, I remind mine that they really don’t want to get embarrassed in front of their little friends, but I will lay down the law if they get out of hand–no matter who is listening and watching. Laying down the law includes extending a couple of reminders and warnings, and, if the foolishness persists, having everyone sit down in the middle of the playdate for some quiet time to reflect about how they could have avoided breaking my rules. If too many rules are broken, I haven’t a problem cutting the playdate short. Trust me when I tell you: busting up the playdate hurts way more than any swat you could give with a belt.

Knowing the playdate could go down in a spectacular display of quiet time and “you gotta go” embarrassment is usually deterrent enough for everyone—my grandkids and their friends—to keep calm and play on. But I know they’ll still have their moments when they encourage and participate in things they have no business doing—warnings or no. In those situations, I don’t sweat the small stuff. I simply stop whatever is going on, scold when it calls for it, redirect when it’s not a big deal, and let the kids do what they do: Have fun.


Biracial Mom: What Do I Do When Black Relatives Pressure Me To Spank?

Dear Mother Wit,

I’m a biracial mother married to a black man and we have two kids, ages 8 and 2, and another on the way. When we go to one particular family’s house, my toddler acts out more than usual and recently, at a dinner party, he really showed out. He stood up in a chair, made his dad drop his drink and ran all over the house like a crazy person, ignoring both my husband and I when we told him to listen to us and sit down. I even tried spanking and ignoring him, but he wasn’t listening and he kept crying.

I felt so self-conscious in front of the other family, which is all black. I’m sure they were judging my parenting skills. Their children, ages 5 and 3, acted better and I couldn’t help but to feel like they were expecting something different from our parenting. I know I need to be more consistent with my disciplining, but how do I parent in public and keep control over how I choose to do so in front of a Black audience?

                                                                                                                  — Parenting in Public

Dear Parenting in Public,

Oh boy, let me tell you something: there is nothing worse than the side-eyes, blank stares, judgment and general funkiness Black folk toss your way when it looks like you can’t control your kid.

I’ve seen a rainforest full of shade heaped on mamas who couldn’t keep their kids in check at the grocery store, in church service, on public transportation and yes, even at their own homes when company is over. I’ve been there, trust me: my older daughter went through her “Terrible Twos” phase at about age three, and when I’d take her to visit my mother and her friends, those old ladies would practically hold prayer circles and séances to summons up a little “get right” for my wild child, who would cry, scream, squirm and fall out no matter who was in the room, what they were saying or how many death glares they would toss her way.

My younger daughter got more of the same when, as a toddler, she’d show up to a room full of Black folks and refuse to smile and talk and charm her way into everyone’s good graces. The temptation to put a little extra into my disciplining techniques was real: it seemed like it would be easier to pop the meaty part of their fat legs than go up against the judgmental demands of a bunch of stern old ladies who’d swear on a stack of Bibles that their kids never had tantrums, always followed directions and could catch a right hook in front of anybody with eyes if they dared step out of line in public.

Thing is, two-year-olds don’t really give a good hot doggone who’s watching or what onlookers think about their questionable behavior. They’re two. If they want to cry, run, fall out, scream, pout, stomp, laugh like maniacs, do the Dougie and drop into a deep sleep on the kitchen counter after all that Tomfoolery, they will do that. Because that’s what two-year-olds do.

If I’ve said it once I’ve said a million times: toddlers act out because they don’t know how to express themselves the way mature humans with words do. This is because they can’t yet talk. So if they’re angry, they can’t say, “Look here, I’m mad and I need you to fix that.” Instead, they’ll go ham and toss up the room until somebody figures out the 411 on why they’re mad and how they expect it to be handled. It’s nothing personal. They’re not being bad. They don’t need to be beaten to an inch of their lives or shown a wooden spoon to fall in line. They need you to figure out quickly what their needs are and handle them so that they can get back to the fun.

But you know what? This isn’t about getting control of your kid in front of others. It’s about feeling comfortable in your parenting choices, even in the face of relentless, hurtful judgment from people who think you suck because you seem like you can’t control your kid.

The best way to deal with that is to:

1. Have a plan for how to handle your kids’ tantrums—one that doesn’t include beating your baby to appease the audience watching the antics. He cries or falls out, pick him up, go somewhere quiet, let him get calm, figure out what the problem is (outside the prying eyes of the old ladies) and handle that madness like Olivia Pope does in “Scandal.”

2. Come with some words prepared for the people who insist on telling you how to discipline your kid. Whenever one of my mother’s friends would fix their mouths to question why I didn’t hit my daughters, why I didn’t relax their hair or why I didn’t yell at or snatch them up when they cried or got out of pocket, I came with this: “She’s acting her age. She’ll have it together by the time she’s off to Spelman.” Anybody who had a comeback got a very simple, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this.” They could stew all they wanted to, but usually, nobody had much else to say after I insisted they stay out of my business.

3. Be prepared to leave. Real talk: you have an audience ready, willing and able to tell you how to discipline your child and pass judgment because you’re giving them a show. If taking your child out of the room and giving him a chance to get calm doesn’t work, politely tell your hosts that your son is too cranky to be good company and take him home. No, children should not be the baller, shot caller of your lives, but really, there’s only a short window of time when your two-year-old will act like a two-year-old, and soon enough, he’ll have a handle on his feelings, emotions and words and be much too busy having fun to ruin yours.



How To Get Your Kid To Stop Swinging On You When She Can’t Have Her Way

Dear Mother Wit,

My 2-year-old has been hitting me, her big sister, the kids out on the playground, pretty much everybody she comes in contact with.  I popped her hand a few times and told her “No! Stop that, bad girl!” but she keeps on doing it.  How do I get this little girl to listen? — Mom of a Little Mike Tyson

Dear Mom of a Little Mike Tyson,

First things first: you need to understand that hitting your daughter for hitting you or anyone else won’t ever change her behavior.  Why?  Because by hitting her, you’re teaching her that the person who hits the hardest is the one who gets her way.  And what comes from that?  More hitting. By her and you.  A vicious cycle.

If you want to stop the hitting, you have to understand why she’s doing it.  Start with the fact that she’s two.  Which means she’s totally acting her age.  Hitting is normal, natural behavior for toddlers, who can’t yet express themselves in the ways that older kids and adults do.  The typical 2-year-old knows only about 50 to 75 words and can barely string them together into phrases or sentences yet, so they tend to hit to get attention, to say they’re hungry or tired, or because they’re frustrated over the fact that they don’t have any control over whatever is going on in the moment.

So while her mind is saying, “I really want a turn on the swing that other kid is swinging on,” or “I really don’t want to sit in this chair right now,” her ability to express those things is severely limited to her saying, “Gimme,” and “No,” with a smack or two to make sure that the other person is totally clear.

Now this is not to say that the hitting is right.  I just want you to understand that it’s normal.  Your kid is not bad.  She doesn’t have violent tendencies.  And she’s going to grow out of this phase where she expresses herself with her hands, rather than her words.  In the meantime, how do you get her to stop hitting? Check out these tips for what to do when your child hits:

1. Calm her down.  Keep it simple: take her away from whatever she’s angry about—the other kid on the swing, her sibling with the toy she wants, that box of colorful cereal she saw in the grocery aisle—get to her eye level, take her hands into your hands (gently!), look her right in the eye and tell her firmly, “No hitting.”  Don’t get any deeper than that because, again, she’s two and mad and lashing out and the last thing she’s going to be here for is a long, drawn-out conversation on why she’s can’t go all Mike Tyson just because she’s not getting her way.  Bonus: when you take her away from the scene of the hitting tantrum, you’re distracting her and making her focus on what you’re saying.

2. Help her find the words to say what she really wants. Of course, it’s not okay for her to hit, but it’s important that you help her understand and express her feelings in that moment.  This requires you to pay attention. When my daughter was little, she had an episode or two over an Elmo doll both she and her sister loved.  If she saw her big sister getting her play on, the little one would run right over and knock the big one right upside the head.  Luckily, my older daughter already knew that hitting was wrong, so she’d either tell her not to hit or she’d come snitch to me.  It took only a few times for me to realize that the little one was hitting the big one because whenever she saw her sister playing with Elmo, she wanted to play with the toy, too.  So I gave her the words to express that, then the rules for how to play with her sister: “I know you want to play with Elmo—that’s your boy. But you have to wait your turn to play with him.”  In that instance, my little sand timer that I kept in the playroom came in handy, too.  “When all the sand runs into the bottom, turn it upside down and then you can play with Elmo until the sand runs out again.” She was a smart little cookie, see?  She couldn’t talk well but she could understand me just fine.  After that, the two could take turns with Elmo and everybody was happy and there was no more hitting.  At least not over Elmo.

3. Give her some options.  She may just not be into being told what to do. I know, I know—you’re the parent, she’s the child and she’s supposed to do what you say.  But before you snatch my mom card and my wig, consider this: there are instances where your daughter is lashing out because she’s frustrated by the lack of options and control.  Nobody likes to feel like they’re not in control, even two-year-olds.  Understand, I’m not advocating you let your kid run the show.  I’m just saying it wouldn’t hurt anybody if you let your kid think she has a little more control.  How does that look?  Well, instead of telling her to pick up her toys, you could say, “Okay, it’s time to put the toys away, baby.  Which one are you going to put in the toy chest first: Elmo or the bouncy ball?”  Instead of saying, “put your shoes on so we can go,” you could say, “It’s time to put your shoes on—which one do you want to wear, the green sneakers or the sandals?”  See?  You still get what you want, and she feels like she’s being included in the decision making process.  And there’s no hitting involved—from either of you. Win for everybody!




Whoop That Child, Damage That Brain. Like Yours Was.

By Stacey Patton, Ph.D.

The following piece was originally published on

“I’m gonna spank my child when he acts out. I got my butt whooped when I was a child and today I’m fine!” 

I recently heard a 40-something-year-old black woman say this during a heated debate over physical discipline of children. Let’s call her Sista A. 

Sista B responded: “Girl, please. You didn’t turn out fine. You grew up to be somebody who thinks it’s perfectly okay to hit a child. There’s something wrong with that,” she said as she gently tap, tap, tapped a finger against her own forehead.

“BOOM!” I said smiling as I gave Sista B a fist bump. 

And she’s right: scientific research over many decades overwhelmingly concludes that getting hit as a child damages the way your brain develops, messes up your mental wiring, and distorts how you remember and talk about traumatic events. 

Think about how most black Americans talk about corporal punishment for children:

  • “You have to spank them or they won’t respect you.”
  • “I whoop my child to keep him/her from going to jail. It works, because I’ve never been in trouble with the law.”
  • “The Bible says ‘spare the rod and spoil the child.’ God is on my side!”
  • “Spanking is discipline. It’s not the same thing as abuse.” 
  • “Spanking equals love and protection.”
  • “If I hadn’t been whooped, I’d have ended up dead or in jail.”

Over time, some people who hated and resented being spanked as children come to view it as desirable, even necessary because their brain can’t recognize being hit as a harmful act of violence. Some people joke about the pain that once made them cry. Many allow religious, cultural, and social justifications to trick them into doubting their healthy childhood belief that it was and felt wrong for them to be hit. As adults, they fervently believe that being whipped was so good for them that they will repeat this cycle with their own children. The core belief still dominant in black American culture is that hitting your child equals good, responsible parenting. 

From my own childhood experiences, I remember those phrases – “This is for your own good.” “I beat you because I love you.” “I beat you so the white man won’t beat you or kill you.” “This hurts me more than it hurts you.” “I brought you into this world and I can take you out.” 

One reason I might have escaped some of the brain damage and never stopped feeling that the beatings were wrong is that I was five years old when I was adopted into the abusivehome, and had never been hit prior to that time when I was in the foster care system. In other words, between the critical periods of age zero to four, my internal hard drive had already been set to process being hit as frightening and wrong.

Over the past few years I’ve grown impatient with the oft-repeated tired justifications for hitting children, especially among black Americans, given the troubling data on the number of abused black kids entering into the foster care system, parents going to jail, and the hundreds of kids who die each year as a result of child abuse. In many of these cases, the child victims were undoubtedly loved by their parents or caregivers who hit or killed them. The perpetrators had faulty wiring in their own brains that caused them to associate physical discipline with love and use violence to get their child to obey.

Let’s look at the data. In 2012, the most recent year of available data, the Administration for Children and Families reported that:

  • Black children had the highest victimization rates in the country, comprising over 140,000, or 21 percent of all abuse cases. 
  • In 2012, 403 of the 1,593 fatalities were black children, representing 32 percent of the victims. 
  • Most of the victims were under age 4.
  • The majority of the perpetrators of abuse, and murder, of black children were black women under age 44. 
  • See the 2012 report here

Let’s talk about how black women under age 44 are most likely to abuse their children. Their intentions might be good, but their reasoning is deeply flawed. But we have to stop for a moment and seriously ask: How much of that flawed reasoning is due to the rewiring of the mothers’ brains that resulted from being hit in their youth? The research shows that a parent’s warmth and nurture does not mitigate the negative impact that hitting has on the brain. 

Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Martin Teicher, who studies the impact that stresses like abuse and neglect have on children’s brain development, says as a child grows, there are moments when there are regions of the brain that are particularly vulnerable to stress. 

One of the most stress sensitive areas of the brain, he says, is the hippocampus, near theamygdala in the mid-brain, which is the center for emotional management and is used for learning, storing and retrieving memories. This part of the brain continues to produce important neurons after birth and stress can suppress this function, ultimately slowing down or impairing our ability to control emotions, take in new knowledge, and think at our best. When a child is exposed to trauma and stress (including spankings that don’t leave scars or other serious physical injuries), that part of the brain increases in volume and can alter a child’s normal brain development. The effects might not be apparent for years until after puberty.

And what are those effects? 

Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine have found that children and adults who have been subjected to child abuse and neglect have less grey matter in their brains than those who have not been ill-treated. Medical professionals have consistently found a link between corporal punishment and increased aggression in children, low academic performance, vulnerability to depression, and antisocial behavior.

Dr. Teicher compared people who were spanked and those that were abused and found that they shared the same alterations in their brains, belying the popular myth that there’s a difference between discipline and abuse and its impact on children. He found that both groups of physically disciplined children had the same risks of developing drug and alcohol abuse, depression and aggressive behavior, decreases in I.Q., and other forms of cognitive impairment.

“We know that the brains of adults who were abused as children are different,” says Nadine Bean, an associate professor in the graduate social work department at West Chester University.

“Shrinkage in the amygdala and hippocampus impacts how one regulates strong emotion, how one processes memories, especially traumatic memories,” she says. “It may be that adults who were whooped as children actually do not remember the most horrible aspects of these experiences. What they may remember is the distorted justification of these experiences from their parent or caregiver.”

Professor Bean says this is similar to Stockholm Syndrome. “If you fear for your safety, your life, then you begin to believe to acquiesce to your abuser’s drivel,” she says.

Children who are hit by their parents can develop a very distorted view of love and attachment. As adults they don’t always know how to interpret healthy forms of love, they only understand being beaten. If you were hit as a child and grew up to be someone who hasn’t developed depression, addictions, suicidal thoughts, aggressive or other anti-social behaviors, but you’re one of those people who looks back and says that getting whooped was good for you and you vow to hit your own kid because it worked, then that is still evidence of brain damage.

“’I was beat and I turned out fine.’ I’ve heard that all of my professional social work life. They make think they are fine, but sadly aren’t,” Professor Bean says. “And, it isn’t just black people, this cut across races, ethnic groups, and socio-economic status. We have met because your child is having trouble in school or is acting aggressively within your home or neighborhood? Ok, you’re fine. Can we explore this a little further?”

Molly Castelloe, a psychology and performance expert who writes for Psychology Today hasrevealed how hitting damages the brain in other ways by teaching a child that learning occurs through punishment.

“This form of discipline pretends to be educational, but is actually a way for parents to vent their own anger. Spanking involves the learned misrecognition of injury as education,” she argues. “Figures of cultural authority, such as parents and teachers, may be construed as purveyors of sadism rather than knowledge. Corporal punishment undermines compassion for others, for oneself, and limits the mutual capacity for gaining.”

The problem is generational, Castelloe says. People parent the way they were parented. In other words, “the cause of this form of educational violence is often hidden in the repressed history of the parents. When adults do not understand the connections between their previous experiences of injury and those they actively repeat in the present, they perpetuate a destructive cycle and inflict their own suffering on their offspring.”

The result — a new generation continues to carry the damage that has been stored up in the mind and body of their ancestor. The cycle, Castelloe and others maintain, can be broken when parents and caregivers work to become consciously aware of, and honest about, their own childhood pain so they don’t transmit historical violence to their children by hitting.

My hope is that black communities will begin to shift the conversation away from the ethics of using physical violence, the radio jokes and hair salon banter, the literal interpretations of Old Testament scriptures, and focus on the science which is clearly telling us that this practice is harming our children’s brains – and our communities.

Help! My Son Is Getting Bad Grades

Dear Mother Wit,

My sixth grader came home with a D in math and a C in science and I’m mad as hell about it. He always got As and Bs in school, but now he’s messing up his grades and acting like he doesn’t want to be bothered with his homework. When I was little, a whooping would be just the kick we needed to get the grades right, and if my kid comes into this house with another D, I might just go old school on him. But I don’t want to see another bad grade on his report card. How do I get him to get his grades up before the next marking period? — Frustrated School Mom

Dear Frustrated School Mom,

First of all, know this: hitting your son or taking away privileges for bad grades won’t magically make him get A’s.  You can’t beat good grades into him and never in the history of history has it ever been documented that a few well-timed, well-placed slaps will up a kid’s understanding of math and science.

What works?  Getting to the root of the problem—finding out why he’s all of a sudden not understanding or doing the work—then helping him fix what’s wrong.

Here’s what you have to remember: your son went through some big changes this school year.  He’s in middle school, which means he’s in a different, bigger building than the one he attended for all his young life, he’s rolling with new teachers he doesn’t know and who have different teaching styles than elementary instructors, and he’s navigating a new, more complicated schedule and a new student body that may include a lot of kids he’s never been around before.  Plus, he’s smack dab in the middle of adolescence: hormones are raging, puberty is turning his body inside out and his brain is having a helluva time controlling his emotions and judgment and impulses.  Mix all of this together, and you’ve got a Molotov cocktail of mess that could rock most adults, let alone an 11-year-old.

Now, of course there’s the chance that your son is getting bad grades because he’s not applying himself or paying attention in the classroom or he’s distracted when it comes time for homework and studying at home.  It’s not a stretch that at this age, your boy is testing his boundaries by acting out in class or shunning homework for some extra sleep or video game time after school.  But what’s more likely is he needs the help of a loving, caring, aware adult who can help him get organized, find his focus, deal with the stress of all the new stuff in his world and tap into all the different skills he needs to settle into this new normal.

Start by having a sit-down with his math and science teachers.  If anybody can put a finger on why your son is getting bad grades in those subjects, it’s the people charged with teaching him.  Set up an appointment time with them or reach out via email and get the 411 on what’s going on.  Ask for specifics on what it is your son is having trouble with: maybe he missed some assignments, which means he needs more structured homework time and better organizational skills; maybe he failed a test or two, which means he needs more instruction and study time; maybe he’s getting points deducted for classroom behavior, which means he needs some incentive to pay attention and focus in class.  You need to know and understand the problem in order to devise a plan of attack that works. The teachers are the key to figuring all of this out.

A note about reaching out to the teachers: I know this can be a scary, time-consuming thing, but trust me when I tell you, teachers appreciate it when a parent gets involved, asks questions and makes it clear that she cares about her kids’ grades and learning habits.  They don’t want your kid to fail any more than you do; in fact, they want your boy to win.  You have to trust that.  You have to trust, too, that you have enough skills and intelligence to walk in the room and advocate on behalf of your kid, even if you don’t understand basic physics or algebra.  This part is key, because please believe me when I tell you, I am not smarter than a 6th grader.  I haven’t one clue about how to do my daughters’ math and science homework.  But their teacher isn’t expecting me to.  What these teachers want from me is a partnership; they want to know that even if I don’t get what my kids are working on in class, I will work hard to make sure my kid gets the help he needs to learn both in school and at home.

How do you do that part? Here’s some tips that helped me with my own kids.

1. Get your son a tutor.  Maybe your son’s math and science teachers offer up extra hours after school for added instruction. Or maybe there’s a resource center at the school that provides tutors—whether adults or older students—who can help.  Free online tutoring is just a Google search away, and there are local tutors you can pay for nominal fees.  When my younger daughter was having trouble with math, I hired one of the gifted teachers at her school; she worked with my daughter on match and writing every week for an hour for $30 a session.  It was the best money I ever spent.

2. Help your kid get organized and ready to do his homework.  I get it: after a long day at work, the last thing you want to do is stand over your kid and make sure he’s doing his homework, but really, this is when your son needs your help the most. When my daughter used to come home from middle school, she had to write a to-do list of her assignments and lay out everything she needed to complete her work.  Then I gave her a snack and let her rest for an hour before she dove into the work.  This part is key.  Your kid has been in school all day, learning, socializing, mind running a billion miles a minute. When he gets home, he needs to unwind and distress from a long day—just like we do as adults with full-time jobs.  My daughter knew she could do whatever she wanted with her hour of free time: she could sleep, watch TV, play on her iPod, look at YouTube videos—whatever her heart desired.  But when that hour was up, it was time to get to work.  Once she finished, she presented her work to me for review against her “to-do” list, then she packed it away neatly so that she could hand it in the next day.

3. Understand the role that stress may be playing on your kid’s abilities. Any deaths in the family?  Has someone he loves—his father, an older sibling, a friend he loves and respects—disappeared from his life? Have you been struggling with a relationship, finances, work or anything that’s had you lashing out at your child, or being extremely short with him?  All of these things could be contributing to the way your son is behaving in school.  Think about it, then talk to him and reassure him that things may be different now, but that the two of you are going to be all right as long as you do your job and he continues to do his—which is to do well in school.

4. Bribe him. Yes, punishing your son for bad grades could make him work a little harder.  But you know what will make him work a lot harder?  Positive incentives.  Money for every A on his report card.  Playdates with friends for every positive report from the teacher.  An outfit or pair of sneakers for any grades improved by a whole letter grade.  Exclusive one-on-one time with you.  Whatever it is that floats your son’s boat, offer it as an incentive to do well.  Yeah, yeah, we all want our kids to do well because it’s the right thing to do.  But positive reinforcement goes a lot longer way than  threats and physical violence.  He’s still a kid, and kids are relatively easy to win over with the simplest things, beginning with attention and promises from the person he loves more than anyone else in the world.

I can’t guarantee that these things will make your kid a straight-A student. But they’ll certainly go a long way in helping him get himself and his grades together, with help him understand that he can depend on you to have his back.


Giving Your Child Some ‘Act Right’ at the Grocery Store

Dear Mother Wit,

I took my three-year-old to the grocery store with me last week and by the time we got to the cashier, she lost her natural born mind.  I should have torn her little butt up right then and there for acting up, but I was too busy paying, putting my groceries in the cart and getting out of that store while everybody was staring at us.  How do I keep her from acting crazy the next time, without catching a case?     — Grocery Gangsta

Dear Grocery Gangsta,

Trust me: I’ve been there. We all have. And when it was happening to me, I couldn’t decide what was more embarrassing: my toddler screaming and falling out at the register, or all those staring eyes burning a hot hole in my head while I was trying to get her and my groceries together. You feel judged. Like everyone watching is deciding that, based on your kid’s actions, you totally suck as a mother. You feel, too, like your kid should know better. And the only way to get people to think you’re a way better mother than your kid is showing them at the check-out line is by putting your parenting skills on full display—with a smack or two to show your kid and everyone standing around doubting your sills that you are, indeed, in charge.

Thing is, hitting your toddler at that particular moment doesn’t necessarily prove you’re a good parent. In fact, all it does, really, is make your kid cry more, or intimidate her into being quiet for that moment. But it won’t change your child’s behavior. Because you know what? Your toddler is three, and that’s how three-year-old humans behave. Truly, you can’t change that, especially when they’re bored, tired, hungry or sleepy. In other words, your kid is acting her age.

But what you can change are your parenting tactics. Getting a little “act right” into your daughter at the grocery store is possible. But that comes hours before you even make it to the store. Here’s what worked for this Black mom who considered a spanking at the checkout when the tantrum was too much:

I stopped taking my kids to the grocery store tired and hungry. If my daughters were sleepy and hungry by the time we got to the grocery store, they acted like it: the whining, the begging for food and drinks down every aisle, the fall outs if they didn’t get their way—all of that was a symptom of being tired and hungry, not being a bad kid that deserved to be hit for acting out. Think about it: when you’re tired and hungry, do you model perfect behavior? If you do, it’s because you’re a grown-up. Toddlers know of no such thing; they want what they want when they want it because that’s the toddler way, especially when they’re tired and hungry. Crying and screaming is pretty much the way little humans express themselves because they don’t have the talking down yet and they don’t know how to communicate their feelings like grown-ups do. How do you avoid the crazy? Don’t go to the store until your toddler’s had a nap, and feed her before you go. This way, she’s happy and can handle the aisles without working your nerves.

I brought snacks and entertainment and turned shopping into the best toddler game ever. Oh please believe: we put that Elmo tote to work, okay? I’d pack baggies full of peanut butter crackers, goldfish, apple slices and a spill-proof cup full of water, a couple of her favorite toys, and a book or two, and then as soon as we’d get into the store, I’d pop her into the cart and let her have at the bag. No kid can resist a bag full of goodies, and that bag of goodness would buy me at least 20 minutes-worth of shopping. If my trip took longer than that, the backup plan was to let her join in on the shopping. We’d practice our colors and foods: “Point out the red can! Which ones are the strawberries?” I’d let her pick up some items off the shelves—like cereal boxes and loaves of bread and yogurt. And when we’d get to the register, I’d let her help unload the cart. Yes, I know that sometimes toddler “helping” isn’t helping at all, but having her drop a loaf of bread was way easier to deal with than a fall-out.

I shopped like a pro and kept my trips short. Again: planning what I needed before I left was the best offense to a potentially defensive toddler. Wander into a store unsure about what you need and tripping down every aisle. See what happens. You’re there for forever, and the longer you stay, the more irritated your kid gets. Because that’s what kid humans do: they get tired and bored and they want to run around and move their legs and act the fool. I avoided this by making my grocery list at the house, and sticking to it when I got to the store. This cut what could be an hour-long trip down to no more than, like, 20 minutes. Get in and out and you won’t have no worries.

I wasn’t above bribery. Oh please believe, I was happy to pick up a Go-Gurt or a juice box or a bag of fruit snacks and put it in my pocket and let my kids know that if they “helped” mommy shop, they could get that little piece of goodness in the car. What did “help” mean? No acting the fool. Period. And I stuck to that. If they cried before we left the store, no treat. Having to go without the fruit snacks hurt way more than a tap on the butt, trust.

So try these tips the next time you take your little one shopping with you.  And remember, when you find yourself frustrated — don’t hit the kids, hit the keyboard for more of Mother Wit’s soulful parenting advice.


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