When you’re brave enough to take a small child shopping: Mindful tips for before, during, and after the shopping trip

As I mentioned in an earlier post about my penchant for visiting a certain drug store with my little one, most outings are adventures for little ones. This is both good and bad news. On the one hand, it’s not hard to find an engaging, interesting place to go and explore. On the other, simple chores or errands all become massive Arctic expeditions when a small child is in tow. And just as you would do for a massive Arctic expedition, you’ll need to have plans for how you’re getting in, what you’ll do when you’re there, and how you’ll get out. Here are some tried-and-true mindful offerings in service of helping parents everywhere get through their shopping lists more efficiently.

Before you go in the store

Have a plan! Share the plan with your kid. What’s on your list? What’s not on it? Let them know that, once you’re in the store, if they are having a hard time with leaving things at the store that aren’t on the list, that’s okay–it just might mean it’s too tricky to visit that store today, and it’s time time to leave. If you’re cool with it, before you go into the store, make an agreement that you will take home one special item that will they get to pick for themselves.

Tell them the story of what’s going to happen so they can picture it in their minds, and remember to consider what’s important and special to them about visiting this particular store. “We’re going to your favorite Trader Joe’s, the one with the murals that have people with vegetables for heads! After we get some cheddar cheese, we’ll stop to have a snack – I wonder what they’ll have today. Remember to look for Molly the Monkey and find her where she’s hidden in the store. And then when we’re all done, you’ll get stickers from the checkout person – what do you think will be on them this time?”

In the store

Stores are designed to tempt us! That’s why the candies and salacious magazines are at the checkout stand. Think of shopping as an obstacle course for delayed gratification – you’re helping your child flex his/her executive function! When your child encounters tempting items, try these ideas:

  • Acknowledge what a cool thing it is “That’s so cool! Wow, it’s so sparkly/colorful/fuzzy/etc.” Then let them know, “It’s not on my shopping list today, so it has to stay at the store.”
  • Set a timer – “How many minutes would you like to look at those? Okay, when the timer goes off, it’s time to leave these items and go look for X…”
  • If they’re still having a hard time leaving the item at the store, offer to take a picture so you can consider adding it to your shopping list for the next trip to the store.

Also, remember that small children are highly motivated by being helpful, so ask for their help! Can they carry the basket or select the shopping cart? Search for items (like a scavenger hunt)? Choose between two of the same item (which bag of carrots should we get)? Choose how many of an item to get (should we get two apples or four)? Choose between two different items (should we get bananas or oranges today)? Help carry bags to the car?

And if all of this is too much, be cool with leaving – that’s what Instacart is for!

After you’ve left the store

If things went well, thank them for their cooperation and patience – give high fives all around! Acknowledge specific successes and moments for which you were proud. “You really wanted those jelly beans and didn’t like it when I said they had to stay in the store, but you took a deep breath and moved on, and then we had so much fun pretending our bananas were big smiles!”

If your kiddo had a hard time and you had to cut your visit short, acknowledge that as well. “It was just so tricky today! It was too hard to leave the things that weren’t on our shopping list, and it wasn’t fair to ask you not to want them so much, so I decided we needed to take a break. It’s okay and we’ll try again next time.” Think together about how you need to modify or improve your plan to make things go more smoothly on your next trip. And acknowledge any small successes that may have occurred. “Even though it was tricky in the store and I said we had to leave, you held my hand and agreed to walk with me to the car. Thanks for helping me keep you safe.”

Happy shopping!

What other mindful shopping tips and tricks do you use to stay connected with your little one as you cross items off your list? Let us know in the comments, and good luck on your next Arctic expedition!


Rebekka Helford is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Los Angeles, California. With over a decade of experience working with parents and young children, Rebekka specializes in short-term intensive parenting consultation, using a variety of tools including home, office, and school visits to help families navigate developmental hiccups and get back on track.

Click here to schedule an appointment or contact Rebekka with a question – who knows, she might even answer it in her next post!


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