One of my nightmares as a mother was having to go shopping--or anywhere actually--during the Evil 5 O'Clock Hour. I don't know how it is for you, but for me 5:00-6:00 every day was always a hump to get over. It went best when I made myself available to give my child some undivided attention--maybe for playing in the yard if it wasn't too dark and cold or for some cozy book reading. Best yet was when I had the emotional energy to just quietly follow her lead no matter how silly it might make me look. So, needless to say, to weather that twilight hour when it seemed like my child would cry at the drop of a hat, I tried my best to not make other plans. Not to have to be cooking dinner, not to have to be meeting with a repair man, and above all not to have to go to any kind of store, but most especially the grocery store.
Of course, life didn't always work that way. Sometimes, I really had pushed things to the absolute limit and the stars converged such that the diapers ran out and the milk went sour on the same day that I'd have a staff meeting at school and not be able to nip into the store before picking my daughter up at childcare. If I knew in the morning that that was going to be the case, I did my best to use my time in the car on the way to school to tell my daughter what pick-up time was going to be like--that I was going to be in a hurry, that I wouldn't be able to walk around with her and see the dolly she played with or her painting that was still hanging on the line drying. I also used this time to ask her if she could think of anything that would help make the quick dash out the door easier for her. Would it help if we made it a contest and saw if she could do it in 2 minutes? Would it help if we asked an adult to give her a five minute warning before my arrival? Would it help if we agreed ahead of time that just this once I could do up her coat by myself? Would it help if she got an extra big hug from her favorite teacher? Even before she was really talking, my daughter could communicate these kinds of preferences if I made enough guesses. My aim was twofold: One, to give her choice in how we left even if there was no choice about stopping at the store on the way home and two, to have something to remind her about when I got to school to nudge her along.
In the case that I didn't have time to warn her that we were going to have to go to the store, it was essential that I pull her aside at childcare into some quiet corner. I would get her on my lap and hold her until I had her attention. Sometimes, this meant a tantrum right there at childcare. It was a break from her routine. I was springing on her that her evening routine was going to be altered. She wouldn't get her playtime with mommy before dinner. Sometimes just holding her on my lap and not letting her run around the center would set her off crying. That was okay with me. Remember I started by saying that even on a good day my child is more likely to cry between 5:00 and 6:00 o'clock? It's as if all the emotional stresses of the day had built up and she was just looking for an excuse to cry them out. Frankly, if she was going to have a meltdown, I would rather that she have it at the center where we could sit on a beanbag in the corner than that she have it in the middle of the cereal aisle. Yes, a tantrum takes time. You cannot hurry it along, and I admit that while I was sitting there letting her wail it out, I was mentally revising my shopping list down to the bare essentials I could get away with getting without making tomorrow a hard day, too. On a happier note, the miracle of a good cry is that it really is like letting the storm wash through with its thunder and lighting. At the end of it, my daughter's tension would be spent and almost without exception she would be ready to calmly go to the store.
Although it might seem counter intuitive, the last minute trips to the store when she hadn't had a chance to cry were by far the dicier ones, the ones which required every bit of patience and creativity on my part to move us along without upset. Again, I would use the time in the car to set the expectations for what would happen once we got to the store: We were only getting a few things (could she hold the list for me?); we weren't getting anything that wasn't on the list (that meant no requests for raspberries, dinosaur pasta or "special treat" cereal); but we were getting apples (did she want red or green?). Again, I would ask her what might make going to the store easier? Could we use the special cart that she could drive? Yes, if it was free, but what if it wasn't free? Did she want to sit in the cart? Would she keep her bottom down? Otherwise she was going to be sitting up in the front part right in front of Mommy. How could she help Mommy? Could she count the apples? Sort the food by whether or not it went in the fridge or the cupboard? Hold the reusable grocery bags and hand them to the bagger? My main aim here in addition to letting her know what kind of behavior would be expected was to make her feel needed and included. Instead of my dragging her to the store because I had no choice, I would pose it as how lovely it was that she was there to assist me.
Once we got to the store, I was all about cheerful confidence that we were going to be quick and that the trip was going to be fun. Often, I would turn it into a song and we would skip through the parking lot (Yes, I skipped in public. If it made a five o'clock shopping trip go off without a hitch, dignity be damned). We would sing: We're going to the store/We're going to the store/Hi Ho the Merry-o,/We're going to the store. If it was working, we'd add more verses (We'll buy the apples first/We'll buy the apples first/Hi Ho the Merry-o/We'll buy the apples first). As we were singing, we wouldn't have to stop to have conversation about which cart we'd use or where she would sit because we had already worked that out in the car. If she did decide to resist, I wouldn't let her change her mind because I knew that if I gave in on that first agreement, all I was doing was putting off the inevitable battle for inside the store. Instead, I would get down to eye level, hold her hands or stroke her arms and gently remind her of her agreement. Sometimes that brought on a crying jag right there outside the store [Let me offer up a small prayer of thanks here that I was parenting in California. The weather was rarely so bad that we couldn't take the time to have the tantrum outside the store. If it had been, I suppose I would have had to go back to the car and let her do her crying there.]
You know as well as I do that a grocery store is specifically designed as a land mine that a parent must negotiate through. Yes, the store does deliberately place toys and yummy snacks right where a child is most likely to see them. That's why I would use the shopping list plus empathy. My daughter would cry out in great need for something--bubbles, maybe--and I would say, "Aw, too bad it is not on the list!" And then as I pushed by the bubbles, I might add in my most energized voice, "I love bubbles! They're so much fun!! I like the way they shimmer with different colors!! Don't you think bubbles are just the prettiest?" At this point, on a good day, my daughter would get excited just talking about bubbles. By the time she got back to wanting to buy them, we would be aisles away and looking for the next item on the list. On a bad day, this might be where the tears finally appeared. Remember, some days there are just tears that need to fall. A child has been keeping it together all day at school, but now that she is with you, her parent, she can safely fall apart secure in the knowledge that you won't abandon her. At this point, you have to make a decision. It might be possible to keep offering sympathy while at the same time going down your shopping list: "Aw, Sweetie. I know you really wanted those bubbles, You really like them and really wish you could get some. I know that's hard, Pumpkin. I wish I could make it easier for you." For my own part, if the crying was at a reasonable decibel and I didn't think I was making the other patrons suffer too badly, I would push through my list, continuing to murmur comforting sounds, taking her hand if she would let me. If it was really bad, I would ask the clerk at the front of the store to watch my cart and head outside until she finished crying. Once she was done--and that could be a while--we would head back in and finish.
AT THE END OF THE DAY
Boy. I am feeling a bit overwhelmed just writing this, just remembering how hard it could be. I certainly didn't make it through my daughter's childhood without some very trying evenings. On the other hand, there were lots of successful times, too, when setting expectations and going into the store with a sense of adventure won the day--days when other parents would look at me enviously and older parents would smile at me indulgently. These were good tricks to have in my bag. But never forget the best trick of all: Whenever possible, at the end of the day, do the planning that WON'T require you to tax your child during the bewitching hour.
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