Cognitive Behavior Therapy and The Scary Truth About Target

Y’all, you might need to sit down for this.

I have figured out why we have virtually no ability to self regulate in Target. Why we all understand the scenario of walking in under that big red bullseye and walking out 3 hours later with no idea what happened and cart full of things you had no intention of buying.

There I was, doing dishes and thinking about what to do this week while the kids are gone at the beach. Enter stage right of my daydream was the front of that red cart. I could feel the chill of a cold coffee in my hand. I could feel the motion of the back and forth as I would weave in and out of The Spot. I could hear myself saying “Now Sarah, if you behave, I’ll get you a treat!”

Something new occurred to me at this point in the daydream. Target has its impulse buys at the very beginning of the experience. How strange. This is not how other stores function. Target also has impulse buys at the register, but their major point of “Do I need this? Aw who cares, it’s only a dollar!” is at the beginning. Why could that be?

In the next moment the background in my daydream changed. There I sat in the gross motor/meeting room at Head Start back in Washington Court House, Ohio. We’d had a particularly challenging time in those months leading up to that training and were hungry for any advice that this behavioral expert could give us.

Over and over through the years I have used what he taught that day about “neutral observations.” Creating a connection with a child who wants to fight off any connection by making them feel noticed but not attaching a positive or a negative connotation to what you say to them. No more “I like your criss cross applesauce, calm body!” No more “We shouldn’t hit our friends!” Now we were to look at the child and say “I see you are wearing a blue shirt” and leave it at that. The child feels noticed but cannot exercise control over that interaction to push you away. You build a relationship. You sound like a big ol’ weirdo, but let me tell you. It works, every time.

The other concept he introduced was a “yes set.” You get a child to agree to what you want him to do by asking him questions that are very obviously answered with a yes. “Is that a ball?” Yes. “Is it red?” Yes. “Would you put it in the bucket?” Yes. It was not as mind blowing to me as the neutral observations and so I’d set it on the shelf in my mind and forgotten it.

But leaned up at the sink today, there it was again. A “Yes set.” And I understood. Target has exercised an amazing cognitive behavioral challenge on us!

Think on this. A mom goes to a similar big box store. She spends the whole store trip say “No. Don’t touch that. Don’t grab this. Put that back.” She is all practiced up for getting to the check out aisle with her little ones who match her training for training. Who will break? Can I have it, Mom. No. Pleeeeeease! No. Just one, Mom! No.

Mom wins the impulse control battle with the child, because she’s practiced the whole trip just repeating no. When she leaves the store, she feels negative because she just had to spend the whole time arguing with her kids.

But imagine, Mom walks into Target. The first thing she sees, which is actually stuck out further into the walkway so she cannot ignore it, is an impulse buyers paradise. And why not?!? A scarf? It’s only $3! A bow for your daughter? Just a dollar. A light saber? $3. A floppy hat, some seeds, a journal (she’s been meaning to write more), a pet toy, a new cell phone case, a very thin yoga mat (if it’s December and that New Year’s resolution is coming up), some educational tools for the kids, Minions socks for her son, a tea towel with a witty phrase, a holiday decoration, a chalkboard something (because it’s almost exactly what she saw on Pinterest, and now she won’t mess it up making it herself), a few pirate kid’s plates, a candle and she has a good start to filling up that cart. Turn the corner and there are those animal cracker packs so easy for sticking in lunch boxes. For just a measly, well, uh, it can’t be that much right, because each thing was like, a dollar….ish.

She has just said yes to every department she will walk through. She has already agreed to buy clothing for her and her children. She’s nodded happily to toys and home goods. She remembers that Fido was low on food, which she hadn’t really thought about until that squeaky seasonal bone looked so agreeably at her. She’s felt that holiday spirit and dropped in something that will remind her she did want to go all the way to the back of the store to see what they put back there in that impulse control disaster of a seasonal section, which is right next to lawn and garden where she certainly needs everything it will take to make those dollar seeds grow. As she walks out of lawn and garden, she remembers, Junior needs some food to go on that new pirate plate.

She has said yes so many times that by the time she makes it out of the Spot the idea of saying “No! Don’t touch that!” seems foolish, because HELLO who wouldn’t want to touch everything?!?!

Not only that, take a moment and realize that the other end of the cash registers is closed off, so Mom can’t skip it and enter through another path. This creates a bit of a bottleneck over by the entrance. That paired with the walled off feeling created by the snack display on the back of the Spot is absolutely enough to make Mom think twice. She had considered telling Junior that if he doesn’t sit down in the cart and stop harassing his sister, then she will make him put that light saber back! But ugh, to go back up there and put it back in the bin? That is a hassle.

She bites her tongues. Yes has been so easy and so pleasant, and no….well, no is the worst, because her cart won’t fit going against the flow of traffic and nobody wants to take a screaming kid back into the Spot.

So she heads to the register, Junior is happy, she is happy, the baby has fallen asleep because she’s been in the carseat on top of the cart for the past …uh…hour-ish. Mom reads the covers of the magazines. She smiles at the college girls with this dorm signs and the same holiday decorations she’s chosen, and feels hip and with it. They smile back, and she sees their approval of her life and perhaps their future, where they might have kids of their own and still use the same things in their cart which makes them feel super mature. Mom hears Junior tells the clerk about his new light saber. The clerk gives him a sticker. Mom thinks that she deserves a treat for having such a lovely outing with the kids and after loading the bags in the cart she heads right into the Starbucks line. And out into the bright, bright sun….and yes…yes…is it a beautiful day? Yes. Yes it is.

And all those tiny wins, those mom victories next to the college girl victories, next to the working woman victories, oh how you can almost smell the dopamine releasing in their brains. All those women releasing all those happy little pings that will let them know….on those days when the world seems just a little too NO to be fair, a little to “Don’t touch that” to be tolerated, she can find herself daydreaming about the one place that from the moment she steps in the door is yes.

Fellow women of America.
It is not our fault.
We are victim to one of the most extensive cognitive behavioral experiments ever.

Target has created a “yes set” and has changed our feelings about their big box store from negative, local store killing beasts with no heart, to the store that just feels good to be there and we don’t know why. Now, you do know why!


Should you accept this?
Should you allow a big business to control you like this?
Should you permit your mind to be changed and feed the addiction it creates?

Well, I for one can say quite clearly, yes….but…I’m not quite sure why I feel so compelled to answer that way…….

***Disclaimer – I do not have any rights to anything Target, except the stuff I bought from Target, which, if I find you snooping around my holiday oven mitts I will put a fight for. I do not work for Target or against Target or super duper near a Target, except relatively, it is closer to a Target than where I used to work. I made that picture on Canva, and the circles aren’t even even like Target’s circles, so it’s only supposed to be reminiscent of Target, but not identical to it, so that seems safe. My views do not represent anyone else’s views, except yours if you totally agree with me. I also am not a psychol-psychia-doctory person and so nothing I said above is to be considered medical advice.  If you have an emergency, please call 911.


A Letter To My Kids On The First Day Of School

Dear Frank and Molly,

After this summer of separation times and unpredictable schedules, it was hard for me to load you up on the bus and send you on your journey back to school. You may only have traveled two blocks, but it feels like you are a world away. Third and first grade feels so big, so grown, but as I see my friends posting pictures of their toddlers turned preteens, or worse, high schoolers, I know that time is marching forward and you will continue to grow no matter how hard your mama digs in her heels.

I want to document all the things I share with you, knelt by your bed at night, talking in hushed tones, just each of you and me. I want to look back when you not racing to the bus stop but rather shuffling to your car to drive off to school and see how the lessons we’ve shared have taught you, formed you or been repeated over and over until you either comprehend or ignore the scenarios that led you to that page in your book.

        1. Don’t be afraid. We can pray that the school won’t burn down or that things will go smoothly with that one kid that makes you tense. We can pray that you will be kind and brave. I am happy to pray those prayers with you and want you to know that God should be the one you take those concerns to. But I don’t want you to live your life consumed by concern.

God did not give you a spirit of timidity and I pray that in my guidance and my handling of your hearts’ responses to the things that cause you stress, that I don’t try to push that sort of spirit on you either.

I could advise you that kids can be tough and they can smell fear, so do your best to give off a confident vibe. I could advise you to pay attention during the fire drills so that in the case of a real emergency you know what to do. But I can’t prevent life’s hurts and daily disasters from coming. nor would I, as I have learned the blessing of suffering and trials.

        I can assure you that though things might not always be good, they can always be glorious.

It is a choice of the heart to see God’s hand in the good and the bad and to praise Him no matter what, and to live kindly and bravely, no matter what.

        2. Be fast, be focused. This is a mantra in our house, from the wrestling mat, to the soccer field, to the morning work desk. If there is a task in front of you, work hard at it and get it done. Do it well, because it is in you to do it so. You were created as capable children who are very bright. If you drag your feet and don’t finish the simple stuff, you will miss out big time.

Paul tells the Colossians that whatever they do, do it as unto the Lord, not unto men. I think even those who don’t ascribe to Christian teaching can hear the message there. Work for something bigger. Work as if what you’re doing matters. It may just be a worksheet, busy work, but it is in front of you to serve a greater purpose than just the completion of an assignment.

          If you approach each task as if it is a small step towards God’s glorious goal in your life, how monumental is the mundane?!?!

        3. Play hard at recess. It is a long day of learning. You will jam a lot in your brains. When you get the chance to get outside, run. Tag someone and then sprint up and down the playground. Swing the highest and learn to jump off while you are still in the air. Slide down the fireman’s pole and shimmy back up it (though that last bit may be against the rules). Be willing to skin your knees.

      The faster you run, the higher you jump the more risks you take, the more you learn that you are able to accomplish great things when you’re willing to put in big effort and take big risks.

        4. Keep talking to me. And to Daddy. I want to hear what you did today that you’re proud of and about the ways you and your friends had so much fun. I want to hear how you rose to met challenges and about who told you they were glad you are their best friend. I want to hear about all the happiest things that you experienced when you were not with me.

I want to hear about the video game manifestation that you played at recess, all of your friends pretending to be different characters of games that bore me, or the same story of playing kitties and doggies that I’ve heard every day before. I want to hear about your broken pencils and how you had to do more plain old running in gym. I want to hear that they served chef salad even though the calendar said pizza. If it matters to you, it matters to me.

I want to hear how you screamed at someone at recess and told them that you don’t even want to play with them. I want to hear about how you dropped all your stuff in the hall and it went flying and even though you tried to stop it, you cried anyway. I want to hear about how the other kids won’t stop talking about boyfriends and girlfriends and it’s annoying. I want to hear about how that one kid stole your crayons and said they were his, even though your name was clearly written on each and every crayon. I want to hear about when you are slighted or cheated. I want to hear about when you slight or cheat others. I can only comfort or advise you if I know about it. Nothing is so bad that I won’t want to hear about it.

I love you both. Don’t forget in your chatting to eat your lunch. Raise your hand and push in your chair. Be polite to your teachers and your friends. Have fun. Come home soon.