Crying in the cart

woman picking out produce

Who hasn’t done it? – You’re tired, the kids are tired, but you need bread and bananas and wearily head to the store. The experience can either bring stress and sadness or build relationships. Here are tips for your trip, and a suggestion for the rest of us.

Editor’s note: When this was published a few years ago, no one had ever heard of COVID-19. These days, children will not be eating a snack in the cart as I suggested back then. They will have masks and possibly gloves on, and will be riding in a sanitized cart that you’ve lined with a bedsheet from home. That said, the grocery store is still a marvelous place for teaching and learning. I’d make the necessary changes and head on it if my son were still little.

This tired shopper scenario above is rough for so many reasons. First, uncomfortable children complain. From birth to early childhood, unmet basic needs are expressed in whining or crying. The fatigued shopping trip is the perfect storm — children are tired, hungry, thirsty, overstimulated, and often too hot; and stressed adults often snap.

Instead of taking a deep breath and responding with grace, the tendency is to try to shut it down. Inevitably, the complaining escalates, frustration increases, and the bargaining and threats begin.

Compounding the problem, judgmental shoppers shame you with critical looks.

What doesn’t work

“Be good and I’ll buy you a treat.” Even if this nonspecific direction was  understandable (what is good here?), and you weren’t making the goodness of the child dependent on behavior, the if/then approach gives control to the child.

“Be quiet or I’ll spank you.” Fear is an effective motivator in the moment but destroys relationships. And, have you ever tried to teach a child you hit not to hit someone else?

Try these positive approaches

  1. Make your child(ren) as comfortable as possible. Let them sit in the big cart with a planned snack, drink and toy or book. This is not the time for the kiddie shopping cart — everyone is too tired to make that work. And, be sure to provide a drink for Baby, remove blankets and open up hot clothing to avoid overheating.
  1. Tell your children what you want, not what you don’t. “Thank you for sitting quietly and helping me look for what we need.” This tells them what is appropriate behavior in this situation.
  1. Give children specific products/attributes to look for, such as, “We need the biggest box of Rice Krispies to make your soccer treats.” Or, “We need the 11 ounce bag of chocolate chips. The one we buy is yellow.” This will significantly slow you down, though; save this for a more leisurely trip. Best of all, if you’ve made a mini-scrapbook, pictures or labels from frequently purchased items, put your child in charge of spotting the next item on your list.
  1. Keep the list short and stay off your phone. Have a conversation with your children. Be truly together.
  1. Keep your comments positive and encouraging.
  • We’ll get the six things we need, then we’ll go home. Will you help me count them as we go?
  • We’re not buying toys today but, when we do, what is something you would like?
  • We are getting a treat to take home. Let’s see what kinds of fruit look good today.
  • Thank you for being patient while we get this done as fast as we can.
  • I know you’re tired. I want to go home, too. Let’s find what we need as fast as we can so we can leave.
  1. Play “I Spy” as you move through the aisles.
  1. Then celebrate. “Yay! We did it. We’re a good team! Let’s go home!

For shoppers

When we see super stressed parents threatening and punishing, we can help defuse the hurtful situation. Don’t be afraid to respectfully engage. Use a compliment to speak well of the children. “You have such beautiful children. It’s been a long day, hasn’t it? You’ll make it.”

The grocery store can be a good experience if we remember that Job #1 is growing our precious relationships first. Then get the bananas.

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