Dear Dr. T.,
I’m not thinking my problem is so unusual- but, it sure is embarrassing! Whenever I take either of my two children [ages 4 ½ and 3] shopping, they inevitably start a commotion- grabbing stuff they want, tantruming- in general, behaving in a totally inappropriate way. Whether I placate, capitulate, or stick to my guns, I end up feeling totally incompetent and humiliated.
What ideas do you have for managing children in public?
We’ve certainly all been there- whether as participants or onlookers- and your situation is a sure lose-lose. Both parties feel frustration at not getting what they want out of the situation and anger at the other. In addition, the bad feeling generated at these outings often spills over and impacts on the mother-child relationship and the activities of the day.
Let’s take a minute to look at the players in this family drama.
The child is immature. Impulsive and over-stimulated by the plethora of material goods, he finds it difficult to delay gratification. He wants something now. And, he is going to get it; either by outright taking it, or by employing the bag of tricks he generally uses to break down Mom’s resolve- crying, tantrumming etc.
Mom is focused on her task- shopping- and expects, or at least hopes for, some co-operation. Because she is somewhat distracted, she may be caught unawares and not notice her child’s state of mind until it is too late. However, she is super-sensitive to the judgment of others, and once she gets a whiff of the child’s distress is anxious to manage the situation as discreetly as possible. Even a toddler may sense his Mom’s state of mind and then press his advantage- escalating rapidly to force his Mom to react [hopefully by placating him] quickly. So, the child, sensing his Mom’s distraction and need to make a decent presentation, goes from zero to a hundred in the hopes of getting a payoff.
The best way to deal with these public power struggles is proactively: i.e. set up a structure where they are not likely to occur. So, before you begin, organize your thoughts so you can accomplish your goal quickly, competently, and without undue stress on your child. Decide beforehand what [if any] concessions you might make to make this a meaningful, pleasurable experience for your child. So, there may be fish in the pond to look at, or a mechanical horse to ride. Perhaps you are willing to let him choose a Shabbos cereal, or purchase a small treat or toy for himself.
Before the errand starts, talk to your child and explain the ground rules for the day. Have your child repeat what he can fairly expect this time. It’s a good idea to have him repeat them again as you walk into the store. Once you’ve entered the store, use lots of positive reinforcement [“Good job listening!”] , dispatch your business quickly, and give the child whatever was promised.
Depending on vagaries like the weather, your child’s mood, the crowds in the store- your child may act up nevertheless. Be prepared to leave – sans shopping and reward- if necessary.
Though that may not change the day’s experience, it should certainly impact on the next one.
Hopefully, the strategy articulated above will allow you and your child to enjoy- or, at the very least, tolerate errands. It is important for children to accompany their parents on even the most mundane of tasks, as it provides the child with that all important slice of life experience. Providing a structure where a child can comfortably do so is a true gift to your child.
However, as with most things, timing is of critical importance. Proactive strategies work on children who have the ability to comprehend and follow directions. Typically children aged three and up fall into this category. But, whatever your child’s age, if he does not have the maturity or ability to cooperate, he is not ready to accompany you to the store.
The idea of restricting the child from shopping excursions that he cannot handle is based on the principle that the environment needs to support desired behavior. Dieters don’t go into candy shops and children who cannot follow the program don’t go into supermarkets. Taking a child who is developmentally unready to deal with a situation is setting a child up for failure and a parent for frustration.
It is the wise parent who prepares his child for the environment [by proactive discussion] and the environment [positive reinforcement, immediate reward] for the child.