How to Make Shopping With Young Children Easier

Little Girl Shopping

Children need help to get their needs met.

Remember those spur-of-the-moment, leisurely shopping trips before you had kids? That was then. Now your opportunities to shop are fewer, time allowances are shorter, and rarely is shopping  an “adult only” event.

On a recent shopping trip, I was standing in line, waiting for the next available cashier, and behind me were a mother and her daughter who looked to be about 3 years old. I had met them earlier in the store, when the little girl was trying on a new pair of shoes. Greeting the mom once again, I noticed the little girl taking a bottle of water from a nearby upright cooler. (The cooler had been so strategically placed by the merchant! It was noon. Feeling thirsty and hungry, I too considered buying a cool drink while waiting.) When she asked her mother if she could have it, her mother said, “No, your water is in the car.” When her daughter said, “I want this one,” I heard her mom tell her, “There are things in this water that are bad for you.” Then the child returned the bottle to the cooler and fetched another bottle of water with a different colored label. I thought, “How smart is she! She probably thinks that this one won’t have bad things in it.” When she asked her mother if she could have that one, her mother, sounding irritated, said “You can’t have that water either. I am not buying any water for you, so don’t think that I am! Put it back!” Her daughter looked sad and confused.

I wondered why the mother was mad. This little girl wasn’t doing anything wrong. She just wanted some water and needed her mother’s help. Small children need help from adults to get their needs met. (I wonder if the mother would have responded differently if she had been with an adult friend who was thirsty, and wanted a bottle of water.) Considering that they had been shopping for some time and it was noon, it’s possible that both the mom and her daughter were thirsty, perhaps hungry, and tired from shopping.

Of course, it was the mother’s right to set limits, but this situation was more complicated than simply setting a limit.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” ~ Benjamin Franklin

Reflection, preparation, and planning make shopping with children more enjoyable. As well, the practices of prioritizing and protecting your child’s schedule for meals, sleep, and playtime make parenting easier, and children happier and more cooperative. For example, this situation may have been prevented if the mother had planned to stop shopping before the child’s lunchtime. Children who are hydrated, fed and rested make happier shopping companions.

Of course, there are some circumstances when parents decide that more flexibility is needed so the child’s routine is set aside. But when parents let go of the child’s routine, the outcomes are more unpredictable. Therefore, more time is needed for preparation and planning for possible outcomes. Parents need to prepare for extending the time for shopping by packing drinks and snacks that will be available when needed. Grown ups are able to wait, children find waiting more difficult. It is age-appropriate for children to feel stressed and irritable when they are thirsty and hungry.

When this kind of preparation and planning doesn’t occur, a shopping trip can, as my girlfriend put it, “turn ugly”. But there are still things that parents can do that may help their children to cope with unmet needs like hunger, thirst, and fatigue — for a short period of time.

  1. Be self-aware. Are you hungry? Tired? Do you feel like blaming your child? Stop immediately and take a deep breath and another one, until you feel calm. The beauty of being the grown up is that you don’t have to be the victim of your feelings. Getting mad at, and blaming, your child for your upset makes everything worse.
  2. Remember that: all children have good intentions and — just because they are children — they all have difficulty waiting, and delaying gratification.
  3. Keep your options open. Reflect and decide if a limit is needed. This is an important decision, but there is no urgency. If you choose to set a limit, then, before voicing the limit, think about how you will support and help your child to cope with the limit. For example, with a positive demeanor you can recognize the child’s wish: “I know you are thirsty and you wish you had some water right now. When we get to our car you will have a refreshing drink of water. You will feel better. Right now, will you please help me and carry your shoes?”
  4. Or, you may decide — just as you already decided to make an exception regarding the child’s schedule — to make another exception and share a bottle of water, relieving stress for you both.
  5. In all situations, let the most important parenting principle be your guide: connection. Look into your child’s eyes, show empathy and stay connected to your child.


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