You have to be adventurous to take a toddler grocery shopping, but sometimes you have no choice. One young mother takes her three-year-old and one-year-old most of the time. She says she thinks of it as a “sport.” To expect a curious two-year-old to be a model of obedience in a supermarket that is set up to make adults act impulsively is unrealistic, but you can create the conditions that help him behave better. Try these sane shopping tips:
- Shop alone, or keep it short. Unless you are the rare parent who enjoys shopping with kids, whenever possible leave the children at home when you have a long shopping list. Get a babysitter or shop during hours when the other parent can watch the children. Running in for a few items can be a fun activity to do together with small children, but long trips exhaust everyone’s patience.
- Plan ahead. Shop at the time of day when your child is on his best behavior (and you’re in a good mood as well), usually in the morning. Be sure that your children enter the supermarket with full tummies. Take along an attention-holding toy that you can tie to the cart. Take a list that is well- organized according to where things are in the store.
- Contain the child. Younger babies (and most older ones) settle happily when worn in a baby sling. Otherwise, use the seat in a shopping cart and remember the safety strap: it keeps kids from standing and climbing. Without the safety strap the toddler will figure out how to climb over the seat into the back of the cart and then he’ll want to get out and run around. So keep that restraining strap on or you might as well go home.
- Keep the assistant shopper busy. Make your child feel useful. Depending on the age, let your child help you shop. Even very young children can recognize the products you use regularly at home. She can help you look for the spaghetti or the oranges. Keeping her in her seat, let her pick the desired (unbreakable) items off the shelf. If the child’s behavior starts to deteriorate, remind her that something more fun is just around the corner, or open the box of crackers.
- Talk about what you’re doing. “First we’ll get some lettuce for salad. Then some bananas. Who likes bananas? You do? Daddy does? What kind of crackers should we buy?” Shopping conversations can help your child to practice all kinds of thinking skills. Be ready with songs and antics to entertain your child while you wait in the check-out line.
- Offer a snack. Opening a box of crackers or getting a roll from the bakery has saved many a shopping trips. If you offer the same one or two eating opportunities on every trip to the supermarket, your child will know what to expect and may not clamor for other goodies.
Here’s how one mother handled a supermarket tantrum:
Our five-year-old, Jason, spilled his treat all over the supermarket store and pitched a fit: “I want more! Go back and buy me more!” His pleas escalated: “Will you buy me a toy?” “You’re mean.” And finally, my current favorite, “You’re a spit!” We wheeled over to a quiet corner of the store and I tried to reason with him, but that was completely useless. What finally did break through to him was talking about how he felt. I said, “Boy, when things like that happen to me, I get really angry. It makes me want to kick something.” My “I understand how you feel” empathy caused Jason to click into a more rational mode and express his feelings: “I feel so angry about my snack that I want to throw this grocery cart out the window.” “I am so upset that you won’t buy me more that I want to throw all the groceries at you!” Then we began to laugh together, and within a few minutes we were able to have a reasonable dialogue and get back on the track of shopping. By the time we left the store the incident was completely forgotten. A few days later, Jason had to have a shot at the doctor’s office. While waiting for his appointment, he got so worked up imagining how the shot would feel that he began crying. I replayed what worked in the supermarket and got Jason to express his feelings: “When the doctor gives me a shot, I want to give her a shot back! I want to take all the shots and put them outside so they can’t give me one.” By adult standards, these expressions would be ridiculous, yet by expressing these wishes, Jason felt he had some control over what was happening. He was choosing not to act on his feelings, while at the same time expressing how he felt. This gave all of us some relief.
Check-out counters are usually where most children’s behavior disintegrates. At the check-out counter, let your child help you unload the items onto the counter, maybe counting or naming things. Keep him busy and involved in the homestretch. You can avoid battles over candy and gum by not introducing younger ones to these delightful little packages. Try keeping your cart out of reach of temptation while you unload. When it’s right in front of you, zip the cart right past it into safer territory. You don’t have to say “yes” every time he begs. He can save his own money, and you can discuss ahead of time if this will be a treat day. Don’t be embarrassed or feel pressured if your child pitches a fit at the finish line. To expect to park a curious child between two rows of tempting delights and not have him want something is unrealistic. The store is counting on adults not being able to control themselves, so why should children? Just get through quickly and leave.