Before you have kids, going to the grocery store, the mall or some other retail store is easy as pie. You casually walk through the aisles, investigating the many options and making the right choice for you. You pretty much have all the time in the world to think about the options and make the right decision. You don’t feel pressured to get in and get out because you don’t fear what problems could develop inside the store.
But with kids, a trip to the store can be a nightmare. You don’t have time to casually walk through the aisles, because at any moment that sweet, sleeping baby may wake up and scream at the top of her lungs; or those super cute twin two-year-olds may decide to start smacking each other and you’ll turn beat red as all of those non-parent shoppers stare at you…and silently judge you!
Yes, going to the store with children is a whole different ball game than it was during your pre-kid years.
Actually, if you’re like most parents, you just don’t take them to the store. You’ve learned that it’s easier to leave them at home with a sitter or with your spouse because then you don’t have to deal with the embarrassment of the whining, screaming, fighting and crying that is inevitable.
Yes, you’ve learned that it’s more relaxing to just go to the store by yourself and relive those pre-kid days (quiet, aren’t they?).
Unfortunately, I’ve got some bad news. I know that it’s easier to leave the kids safely at home. I know that you don’t have to hear the whining or intervene in the sibling rivalry or say “No” to the incessant requests for candy. But leaving them at home makes it harder on them to learn how they’re actually supposed to act in this environment. It robs them of these lessons in patience, wants versus needs, frustration, boredom and other real-life lessons that can occur in a public setting where certain behaviors are expected.
Without taking them to these public settings, you’re actually depriving them of a valuable opportunity to learn how to act in a store. And, if they plan to ditch their children in the future for a relaxing trip to the grocery store alone, then they’re going to need to know how to act in the store!
Next time you need to run to the store, take the kids along. But instead of going through the same-old same-old and stressing everyone out, try to make these changes to your routine to ensure that your kids know how they are supposed to act in this setting.
Many of the problems that occur in public places occur because children don’t have an understanding of what the adult’s expectations are for their behavior. Kids get excited when they go to fun places like the zoo, the park, and even the grocery store. This can be like an adventure to them, since they spend the majority of the time at their house, in the car or at daycare. When kids are excited, they don’t exactly act their best.
On the other hand, some kids may despise going to public places like the grocery store. They too may not be on their best behavior, but it may be to demonstrate how unhappy they are with your choice to bring them to the store.
Either way, whether kids are overly excited or upset that you’ve drug them to the store, they need some help understanding what your expectations are.
Before you get there, like on the car ride there, tell them exactly what you expect of them while at the store. Provide a few, simple expectations (2 or 3) and let them know what will happen if they cannot meet your expectations.
Here’s what providing expectations might sound like:
“Alright kids. We are almost to the grocery store. We have some things that we have to buy today for dad’s birthday party, so we have to get them done quickly since his party is tonight. While we are at the store, remember, we have our listening ears on and use inside voices. If you forget those rules, we’ll all come take a time out in the car. In the store, you can sit in the cart or walk by me, but if you choose to walk away from me and can’t get back to me by the count of 5, then you choose to sit in the cart. Everybody got it?”
Involve Them in the Experience
Going to the store is much easier when you make the list yourself and grab all of the things that you need by yourself. You can load the cart in exactly the right way so that it’s easier when you unload it all at the checkout counter. But, if you expect that the kids are going to sit quietly and do nothing while you do all of the work at the store, you’ve got some unrealistic expectations for kids.
Kids get bored pretty easily and they need something to keep their attention during this shopping trip, even if it’s only 30 minutes.
Involve the kids in the shopping experience by asking their opinions or asking for help with things, like:
- Dad really wants chips for tonight. Which chips do you think he would like?
- We need to get some paper plates. Can you guys see any red ones?
- Hmmm…there’s 25 napkins in this package and we’re going to have 30 people at the party tonight. How many packages do you think I should buy?
Ask the kids to be your little helpers and to grab the things they can reach (with your permission of course!). Let them load the items into the cart and onto the checkout counter if they’d like to, because giving them something to do at the store helps keep them out of trouble and, at the same time, it teaches them how to be more independent and make choices.
One of the most difficult things for parents to deal with is the fact that they feel like they are not in charge in public situations. Sure, a parent may set the expectation that the child use inside voices, but that doesn’t mean the child will actually do it.
So what do you do when the child doesn’t do what you’ve asked them to do? Then you do what you’ve promised. Follow through on the expectations that you provided in the car on the ride here. If you promised that you’d take them out of the store if they weren’t using their listening ears, then take them out of the store if they refuse to use their listening ears. If you promised that you would make them sit in the cart if they walked too far away from you, then put them in the cart.
But what do you do if they scream when you try to put them in the cart? Well, if you promised to take them out of the store for not using indoor voices, then it looks like you have your answer. If you didn’t promise that, then it would be good to tell them what your plan is if they keep screaming, and then follow through on that.
Many parents have a hard time with taking their child out of the store. It’s time consuming—for sure—and it can be really embarrassing. Sometimes, it’s just easier to let the child continue doing that small thing you didn’t want them to do, or to distract him with a treat, toy or electronic device. But ultimately, if you want to be able to trust to take him to the store long-term, appeasing him when you’re in a hurry only makes the behavior worse in the long-term.
Connect with Consequences
Most parents aren’t fans of promising their kids a treat or toy for good behavior at the store. This sets a precedent that kids should do something only because of the reward that they receive out of it. This is a valid claim and I support parents who wish not to do this, but at the same time, I know that research indicates that behavioral responses like offering treats or stickers for good behavior and punishments like missed opportunities for bad behavior does actually work.
So, for those parents who don’t want to bribe their kids with promises of treats, there’s another option that I think can work really well, and it doesn’t feel as much like bribing.
After you have finished your trip to the store, you really want to connect how well the children behaved at the store with the consequences that they received. You want them to know how you felt about their behavior so that they can learn to behavior better in the future if their behavior was bad, or similar if their behavior was acceptable.
If their behavior was acceptable, try some of these statements that will connect their appropriate behavior with a reward:
- At the checkout counter, say “Wow. We didn’t spend as much as I thought we were going to and we got done so quickly. I think we all deserve a special treat because we saved some money and shopped quickly. Why don’t you all pick out a treat for being great helpers today!”
- On the way to the car, say “I can’t believe how quickly we were able to get that shopping done. Thank you for being such a big helper and making this shopping trip so easy. I’m going to let you pick the radio station in the car since I couldn’t have done that shopping so quickly without you.”
- In the car, look at the clock and say, “Wow. We got finished a lot quicker than I thought we were going to. We’ve got some extra time. Should we stop at the park to play for a little bit as a reward for how hard we worked to get our shopping done quickly?”
If their behavior was unacceptable, try some of these statements that will connect their inappropriate behavior with a consequence:
- At the checkout counter, when the child asks for a treat (which most kids do) say, “I’m sorry but you won’t be able to get a treat today. You forgot to wear your listening ears today and we had to take a time out in the car, remember? Maybe next time, if you are able to follow my directions, we can talk about getting a treat.”
- In the car, look at the clock and say, “It took us longer than planned to shop today since we had to take a time out in the car. I was hoping that we’d have time to stop by the park to play for a while before going home. Oh well, maybe next time.”
- At home, look at the clock and say, “It took us longer than planned to shop today since we had to take a time out in the car. There won’t be any time for TV right now because it’s time to get ready for dad’s party. Maybe next time we go to the store, it’ll go faster and there will be some time for you to watch TV.”
The key to this approach is to make sure to draw the connection between how the child’s behavior caused the outcome. While you aren’t saying directly to the child that he is being punished for his behaviors, you are letting him know of the natural consequences that have occurred because of his behaviors (i.e. if you take too much time doing things, or misbehave so things take longer, you may miss out on other things that you wanted to do).
If you follow these 4 tips, eventually (most of) you will be able to have tear free trips to the store with children who know how to act in the store. This is because they will learn that with positive behaviors come positive, natural consequences (like praise from a parent, a surprise treat, or enough time to watch TV or play outside) and with negative behaviors come negative, natural consequences (parental disappointment, and not enough time for treats or other special activities).
The first few trips are the hardest, but if you can remain firm on your expectations and connect the child’s behavior with some natural consequences, you have taught lessons in how to act in public settings and your workload for future shopping trips will be decreased tremendously.
Not all kids will be responsive to these methods. Children with unique temperament styles, strong willed personalities or conditions like ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) and Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) may not respond to forms of discipline like this. If you’ve tried these tips and behaviors continue to develop in public settings, perhaps additional assistance is needed. Play therapy may be a good option for your child to learn and practice the skills that you’ve been trying to teach through these experiences.