Parenting from the Heart: Shopping with a Toddler
Parenting From the Heart
“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye,” said the fox in The Little Prince.
Parenting is a field over-populated with experts and with ideas that “everybody knows.” These essays will question widely held beliefs and propose other ways of looking at the problems those beliefs seek to deal with. The point here is not to substitute one dogmatic approach for another, but to get the reader to question common “knowledge” and to look with the heart to see if there might be another way of seeing that yields a truer, more loving approach to parenting problems.
I welcome your comments. And please feel free to write to me on FB about your particular parenting problems and I’ll try to respond to them.
Shopping with a Toddler
Let’s start with one of the most harrowing experiences parents get embroiled in: shopping with a toddler. We’re off to buy a birthday present for our 3 year old’s cousin and as we browse, our child sees treasures and starts asking for things. We patiently explain that today we are shopping for cousin and may even try to enlist our child’s help in picking something out. Likely any such help will involve our child expressing what he wants. By the time we have narrowed our choices to the cute outfit the mother will love or the useless toy the birthday-boy will love, our child is begging for one or several of the wonderful things that has caught his eye.
We can all sympathize with both mother and child as the scene unfolds: the tears, the tantrum, the patient or not-so-patient mother getting out of the store as quickly as possible. Harsh words may be spoken, and a physical battle may occur. At home the child is likely given a “time out,” an imprisonment theoretically intended to give the child a chance to think about what he’s done. The parent may even consider it a victory when the subdued child later apologizes for the incident.
Let’s look at the beliefs operating here. The main one is “They have to learn,” something we often hear parents saying. And there is some truth in it. But what about the unspoken, probably uninspected rest of the belief, all or part of the following: “They have to learn that they can’t have everything and I have to teach it to them in this way now or they will never learn it and they will grow up to be penniless, friendless bums and I’ll be looked at as a failure and have nobody to take care of me in my old age.”
Ok, we can agree that we don’t want our 20 year old kids having tantrums in stores because we won’t buy them something. And we can also agree that we don’t like fighting in stores with our 3 year-olds. The question is how does our stubborn 3 year-old become a poised 20 year old? Overpowering our 3 year-olds as in the above example seems to work — we don’t see young adults having tantrums when shopping with their parents, do we?
Let’s look at behavior from another perspective. James L Hymes Jr. offers this view in The Child under Six: “All children do some things which are ‘naughty but nice.’ The acts are ‘naughty’ in that they trouble us a bit. They are ‘nice’ in that the behavior is logical and necessary, a healthful expression of the child’s normal growth at the time. Babies wet and babies burp. These acts are ‘naughty but nice’…..Two-year-olds are stubborn at times, and possessive, and they sometimes pull hair. These are ‘naughty but nice.’”
Does this mean we just grit our teeth and put up with these behaviors? No, and Mr. Hymes offers some clear-headed advice: “Your sense of timing is very important here. There is no point in drawing a line for the child who is too young. There is no point in saying ‘No’ when a child’s whole body makes him fight you. But when you think your child is ready to learn, your big job is to teach him. Never hesitate to be a little easygoing when tolerance is called for. Never back away from drawing a firm line when firmness and directness seem the right approach.
“On the spot, an adult has to do something. Later, smart adults think about what they did and lay plans for the next time.”
Let’s apply this to our toy store tantrum. The parent did what she felt she had to at the time. We can all be glad if doing this is the worst offense we ever make as a parent. But frayed emotions and harsh words and punishments are obviously not what we would plan for the next time.
What might we do differently? First we might look at whether we are drawing a line for a child who is too young. Is this child really ready to accept gracefully that he cannot have a toy when shopping with his mother? If we think so, we might explain it carefully before we leave the house, getting the child’s agreement and even having him speak his agreement — “Mom, I understand that we are shopping for a present for my cousin and you aren’t going to be buying me anything.” Anytime we’re preparing our child to face a situation we expect to be difficult, we might pose some “what if” questions like, “What if you see something you really, really want?” We also make sure the child is not tired or hungry.
It also helps to take the child’s view of the situation, to empathize with the difficulty of seeing all those wonderful things and not be able to have them. Can we work out some plan so that the child sees a possibility of having one of them in the future? Could he tell you things he sees and wants and watch you write them on a list for his birthday or for Santa? Can you work out with him an allowance and how he might save for what he wants? If party favors are a tradition in your circle, you could remind him that he will be getting some treasures at the end of the party. We can promise a play in the park or other good thing to look forward to after the shopping ordeal is over. Thus prepared, we go to the store.
If these fail, or if the parent has already concluded that the child is too young to learn this lesson right now, we take a different approach. The simplest is to not take the child along. The logistics of shopping without a child can almost always be worked out.
If the child must be brought along, what about buying the child a little something? The specter of spoiling our child often prevents us from taking this option. Spoiling will be the subject of the next column.