Surviving the Trip to the Grocery Store with your Child

byRona Benhorin, Ph.D.

Having your child join you when you are running errands, such as grocery shopping, can be a great opportunity for you to bond with and teach your child important skills. However, many parents report that having their child tag along with them to the store often turns out to be a stressful experience for both parent and child. Below are some guidelines for making the trip to the store a more positive and enjoyable experience for both you and your child:

PROVIDE OPPORTUNITIES TO PRACTICE

  • Children need opportunities to practice appropriate behavior. Grocery shopping requires a child to demonstrate several behaviors and skills, including walking nicely and patiently next to a parent, resisting many temptations, and waiting in line. This is not easy for many young children. Parents’ tendency to shop alone after having had one or more bad experiences shopping with their child means that children get even less opportunities to practice and develop these very important skills.
  • Practice can start at home. You can plan a pretend trip to the grocery store while playing at home with your child. This fun interaction will allow your child to practice and develop the skills that you would expect him/her to demonstrate at the store.
  • Planning short trips to the store for the purpose of exposing your child to that setting and practicing appropriate behavior may be necessary and helpful as well. Remember that the goal of these visits is for the child to develop skills and practice appropriate behavior and not for you to accomplish your shopping for the week. Your child would be more likely to have a successful visit to the store if the trip is initially brief. Thus, at first, you may want to go into the store to get only one item and pay for it. The second visit may last a little longer. Successful visits (during which your child exhibits appropriate behavior), as short as they may be, should be followed by a small reward that your child enjoys (e.g., a sticker, special treat, playing a game with mom, earning an extra 15 minutes on the computer). With more practice and exposure, your child’s skills will improve and you will gradually be able to shop for longer periods of time.

PRIOR TO LEAVING THE HOUSE

  • Children as old as 2 or 3 can become involved in making the grocery list with their parents. This way your child would know what you are planning to buy and can learn the importance of buying only what is on the shopping list as opposed to engaging in “impulsive buying.”
  • Set up rules and expectations regarding appropriate behavior in the store prior to leaving the house. Rules should be clear, simple, and age appropriate (e.g., use inside voice, hold on to the shopping cart) . Remind your child of the rules again prior to entering the store.
  • When reviewing your expectations, make sure to also let your child know whether or not he/she would be allowed to buy a treat (i.e., snack, toy) during the visit to the store. If your child is allowed to get something, it is helpful to be specific with regard to the type of treat that your child may choose. Make sure to follow through with your promise.
  • Never take your child to the grocery store when he/she is hungry. Feed your child a healthy meal or give him/her a snack prior to arriving at the store. This would decrease the likelihood that your child would have a meltdown and/or be tempted to ask for food items that are not on your shopping list.
  • Keep your child interested and busy while shopping. Young children can be kept busy with toys or books while sitting in the shopping cart. Older children can become involved in shopping. For example, allow your child to select foods from the shopping list, place them in the cart, and cross them off the shopping list. For children who cannot read, a “picture list” may be more appropriate and fun.
  • Grocery shopping is also a great opportunity to engage with and teach your child. With young children, you may name the foods on the shelves, point out different shapes and colors, and practice counting. For example, your child may help you count the apples you put in the bag. Older children can learn about reading food labels, healthy food selection, food groups, smart shopping, and/or paying.
  • Catching your child being good is important. Focus on proving labeled praise for appropriate behaviors that you would like to increase. For example, praise nice walking, helping behavior, and staying close to the shopping cart (or for younger children, praise sitting nicely and quietly in the cart).
  • If your child begins to whine and/or tantrum while you are shopping, quickly remind him/her of the rules and expectations in a calm but assertive tone of voice. If the child continues to tantrum, it is best to ignore the whining and tantrums rather than begin to engage with your child (either by talking or threatening). Ignoring means not giving any attention to you child. Just keep shopping. When you child calms down, continue to look for opportunities to praise him/her for appropriate behavior.
  • If, however, your child’s behavior escalates and becomes disruptive to others, you may need to leave the store and place your child in a time out until he/she is able to calm down (do not talk to your child while he/she is in time out). Remember to stay calm and in control. Do not be tempted to give in to your child because you are embarrassed of what other shoppers may be thinking. Sticking to your rules and following through with what you say are both crucial to teaching your child to behave appropriately in public. Do not be discouraged by challenging visits to the store. Practice and consistency will pay off in the end.

It is important to note that, with some modifications, many of the guidelines outlined above could also be used to teaching your child to behave in public places other than the grocery store (i.e., restaurants, shopping centers). The key is to provide your child with opportunities to practice appropriate behavior, setting up clear rules and expectations, keeping your child busy and engaged, proving labeled praise for appropriate behaviors, ignoring tantrums, being prepared to leave (or remove your child from the setting) temporarily when he/she becomes disruptive to others, staying calm and consistent, and following through with what you say.

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