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How I Take My Busy Toddler Shopping in a Store

How I Take My Busy Toddler Shopping in a Store

I've heard of the rare toddler who sits placidly in a shopping cart while his mother shops unhurriedly in a market or store. But, as I don't know any of these mythical creatures myself, I tend to think this is an urban legend. Most of us have toddlers who would rather do absolutely anything other than sit still, confined in a shopping cart. But we all have to run errands with our kids sometimes. Is there a way to do it sanely?

Circle of Moms member Jennifer M. suggests that you need only be more stubborn than your child. I think there's some truth to this. Toddler tantrums are not always — or even often — about "the thing" itself, but rather about winning an unconscious power struggle.

Nevertheless, some moms, like Sarah R., prefer to avoid the issue altogether by having the groceries delivered. Others use distractions; Kalley C. says a pad and crayons will occupy her daughter long enough to get the job done.


My approach is that of a magician. I try to have lots of tricks up my sleeve. Maybe I'm naive, but I always think at least one is bound to work. And the truth is that our toddlers change all the time. A trick that did not work last Saturday at Target might very well work on Wednesday at Walgreen's.

After many disasters, my son and I have actually gotten good at this. (I cannot claim full responsibility because, at 26 months, he tends to be a willing and even reasonable participant.) I talk to him all the time about what we're going to do and how I hope he will help.

First off: I would never take him on an errand if he were sick, overtired, or hungry, unless it was an absolute necessity. But if he's on his game, I'll take him almost anywhere now. This was not always the case. He was an early walker, started ambling precariously around before he was 10 months old, and we were not prepared. With walking came his desire for independence, and this is when our public-outing troubles began. No more restaurants; Olin destroyed a dining room as if it were a paper dollhouse. No more friends' houses, either. We never wanted to dominate him to the extent it would've taken to avoid breaking glasses, staining furniture and carpets, and wasting food to boot. We sucked it up and kept him at home — where we trained him as if he were in a Ritz-Carlton dining room. 

 These were the rules at one year: 

  • No intentional spilling
  • No spitting or throwing food
  • No banging dishes with forks or spoons

These don't seem like terribly ambitious goals, but we were determined to do what it took to teach Olin a modicum of manners. If he violated the rules, he got simple and logical consequences. For example, throwing food means you must be done with your food and are ready to move on to your bath.

A "Bag of Tricks" for Grocery Trips

How does all this translate to a store setting? I try to be very clear with Olin on the ground rules in stores, too. At the grocery store, he can take items off the shelves after asking me, or play in the back of the cart as long as he remains seated. I give him privileges that go away if he abuses them. I give him all kinds of rope as long as he doesn't cross the lines of breaking things or opening packages. If he plays by the rules he gets a reward of his choice (among three things).

This is a logical approach that works when Olin is most rational. (I think it's a myth that toddlers do not have this capacity.) When it doesn't work, I get out my bag of tricks, one of which is letting Olin be "Mama's helper." Underneath it all, he just wants to be included, so if I take the extra time to help him lug the gallon of milk into the cart, he will feel a real sense of accomplishment. Likewise with choosing vegetables. We smell them and look at them, and I let him decide which ones we will take home. If he chooses a bruised peach, I show him the bruise and say, "Can you pick one that has prettier skin?"

My most successful strategy, though, is negotiation. I feel a slight sense of defeat when I have to resort to this, but it often buys me enough time to get safely out of the store. Delayed gratification is something even a 2-year-old understands. He doesn't want to wait, but he can, and he understands what it means to have a big bowl of berries when he gets home. So I walk him through the whole process as I shop: First, we'll buy the berries. ("What kind of berries would you like?" This question implicitly rules out ice cream.) Then, we'll carry the groceries into the house, and you can help me put them away. Then we'll wash our berries and put them in a bowl. Then, finally, we'll eat them.

He likes stories such as this one, and his memory is good enough that he remembers the narrative sequence all the way home. What's more, he holds me to it, as he should.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, POPSUGAR.

Join The Conversation
chrystalfaber chrystalfaber 5 years
Yes, it is not a easy going shopping with kids, I have 3. Luckily my oldest is in school so I'm stuck with my 2 and 4 year old. Before entering any store I always tell them the rules and reward them later. I also always go to the store with a tote bag filled of dry erase boards and crayons. And when they get bored of that I always have a small ziplock bag of snacks to keep them busy and from asking me to buy junk food.
amandagood94750 amandagood94750 5 years
im right there with you, my 22 month old son would if he could tear walmart on a saturday morning to pieces. i have tried everything and nothing works, to the point of getting a babysitter so i can grocery shop.
NikkiCoyle31906 NikkiCoyle31906 6 years
Sounds great but any tips on shopping with triplets (3 year old triplet boys)..... Or should I just give up!! X
MeeyaWright MeeyaWright 6 years
I try to do my groceries or run errands in a shopping centre with a playground. My little ones (once 3 under 3!) see the playground first and ask to play. So I tell them that they get to play after they've been good for me the whole trip. If they ever start acting out of line I threaten no playground, and they are quick to obey! And giving them the reward at the end provides a little break for me whilst sipping a hot latte :)
LaressaMarengere LaressaMarengere 6 years
My nearly two year old daughter has always enjoyed shopping. The only time that was hair raising was when i let her use the kid sized shopping cart. She pushed it straight to the produce section and piled on grapes apples and oranges. After that she considered the shopping done and rammed into quite a few things. She had fun at least!
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