"Mom, can you buy me that?"

My kids are driving me up the wall. Whenever I go shopping, they keep at me – “Mom, can you buy me that? Mom, can you buy me that?” I feel like screaming at them. Don’t they understand that I can’t afford to buy them everything in the store?

You have voiced what many parents feel, especially in the Christmas season when toys and candy are everywhere, and a shopping trip can turn a little child into a wailing nag or a screaming banshee. The answer to your question is no. Children don’t understand that you can’t afford to buy them everything. It will take them years to understand money, and why an adult who can take $50 out of the bank machine can’t do the same thing to buy them a doll or an action figure. You can’t expect them to understand, or to resist the pull of all the fascinating things they see, or to be able to sit still or walk quietly for an hour while you buy things which don’t interest them.

Unless you have to, I don’t think it’s a good idea to shop with young children. They have short attention spans, and they want to touch or play with everything they see. I remember taking my daughter into a pottery shop when she was about two, and the wise owner said “She thinks with her hands.” If any normal child isn’t allowed to touch things she sees, she becomes frustrated. If this goes on for more than five or ten minutes, the child won’t be able to control her emotions and will start demanding, crying, or having a tantrum. Children also tire easily, and can’t take more than about half an hour of shopping. Get a sitter, shop when your child’s in school or preschool, get your spouse to look after the kids, or trade babysitting with a friend so you can shop without having to deal with a whining and crying child.

For adult shopping, such as for your own clothes or furniture, never take a child along, period! For food shopping, tell the child at the start of the trip that she will get a specific kind of treat at the end of the trip if she cooperates and doesn’t whine for things. For a child young enough to sit in the buggy, take along a toy to play with. For an older child, ask her to get the food you suggest off the shelves, so she can feel involved in the shopping. If the child starts to whine for a specific item, remind her that she will get her reward at the end only if she cooperates. Make sure you do buy some things your child wants, such as interesting cereals. Don’t spend time chatting with friends; get your shopping done as fast as possible so you won’t exceed your child’s attention span.

If you’re shopping for children’s clothes, take only one child at a time. Make sure that the shopping trip is going to be short and to the point. Choose one store with a good variety, or a group of stores close together. Plan to make the trip half an hour or less if possible. Take your child’s opinion of the clothes seriously and don’t buy something she hates. I have heard countless adults in therapy complaining that their mother never respected their choice of clothing. Yes, you may know that the coat you buy needs to be warm, but she may know that it needs to be something she won’t get teased about. Make an agreement before you leave that whatever you buy needs to be something acceptable to both of you. This is a good opportunity to teach your child the art of negotiation, and the value of money. If you can’t find something suitable on this trip, go home and plan another trip. If you keep shopping for more than half an hour, you are asking for whining and tantrums.

If you are shopping with your child’s money for a gift, or helping your child spend her allowance, plan ahead with the child what kind of items to buy. If there are certain things you will not allow her to buy (such as guns or junk food), make this clear before you go shopping. If you are using your money rather than your child’s money, make your price limit clear before you shop. Then go directly to an area where the items available are within the price range. Children will only be frustrated if they spend time in the expensive areas of a toy store but can’t buy anything. Help your child figure out how much money she has, and what combinations of things she can buy with that money. Then respect her choices, within the limits you set out ahead of time

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