Simple Ideas with Profound Impact

How to Survive the Grocery Store – The Progressive Nature of Understanding

In our science blog earlier this month, we talked about the progressive nature of brain development and the importance of understanding and paying attention to this core principle. Now, let’s take a look at the development of understanding as a practical application of this principle.

We grown-ups often pay a lot more attention to a child’s ability to give us information (output) rather than how much information a child is receiving (input). The development of understanding, like all other functions, goes from simple to complex. It is very progressive. At first a baby only understands your tone of voice and sounds in the environment. Then comes the understanding of simple words, then simple sentences, followed by simple orders or instructions (Wave bye-bye!) that then lead to more complex multiple step instructions. This then leads to the beginning of an understanding of time (soon, later, etc.) and space (up, down, over, under, etc.) which makes it possible for the child to understand deals or negotiations. At first, a child will only have concrete understanding. Then, as her understanding develops and matures she will begin to understand simple abstract concepts and so on.

How well a child understands, where she is on the progression, will impact her behavior and how well the child relates to the world around her. We will dive deeper into the topic of behavior in a future post but let’s talk a bit about the relationship between understanding and behavior.

People often talk about the infamous “terrible-twos”. This is the stage where a child is beginning to test the waters. This is when your child wants to get what they want when they want it. Usually that means, right now! There is no negotiating on your part. The child wants something and they want it immediately. If they do not get it they will cry, throw a tantrum, or perhaps have a full-blown meltdown. The degree of the outburst will depend on how badly she wants it, how often you have given in, and how much attention she is getting when she is “being loud”.

Have you ever seen a child throwing a tantrum at the checkout counter in a supermarket? You know the drill. She wants the candy/toy/whatever that is purposefully placed near the checkout so your child will see it. What a perfect place to have a tantrum! You are horrified that your child is screaming and you are getting judgemental looks about your parenting skills from the people around you. Or at least that is how you feel! And then there is the occasional person who asks your child “What is wrong? Don’t cry!” which gets her to scream even louder because she now has a sympathetic audience which might result in her getting what she wants. You might end up giving in just so you can keep the peace. Right? Does this scenario sound at all familiar? Are you getting anxious just reliving this scenario?

So, you might be asking, how can I minimize this kind of behavior in my little darling and make my trips to the store a bit more pleasurable? First, remember that how you go about this will depend on your child’s level of understanding, where she is in the progression to mature understanding. Second, remember it is impossible to negotiate with your child if she does not have some understanding of time concepts. If you say to your child “you can not have it now but I will give it to you later (or tomorrow, after lunch, etc.)” and your child does not understand time she will not understand you trying to reason with her.


Here are some tips to make your shopping experience more enjoyable:


Set yourself up for success

Avoid going to the grocery store when your child (or you!) are tired. I know, I know – as a parent you are pretty much always tired, but you know what I mean. Also avoid going if you’re in a hurry. It just sets you all up for frustration and struggle. Whenever possible, make a shopping trip part of your weekly routine. The consistency will help your child as it will be a part of their routine. It will also allow you to plan for the trip and not be rushed which always adds stress to the situation.


Establish rules beforehand

Make sure your child is aware of the rules before you even go into the store. For example, children should not run around the store. There are too many ways they can get hurt. This should be rule number one. Let her know that the store rule is that everyone always walks or rides in a cart while in the store. Anyone who runs is denied the fun of shopping.


Engage your child

Always try to engage your child. Talk to her about what you need to buy. Tell her how great it would be to have her help. Make it fun so she wants to participate. Young toddlers may not have time concepts but they want to do everything by themselves. They are beginning to experiment with independence. So, take advantage of this by requesting their help! Make her think you need her help because you really do if you are going to get anything done!


Keep your child busy with little tasks

Whenever possible, give your child the item you are purchasing so she can place it in the cart or basket for you.


Use the little carts when available

If you are shopping in a store that has little carts for children, let your child push her own cart with the understanding that your shopping will take longer. When children are pushing their own carts it is a good idea to place heavier items in the cart to slow them down. This way you can avoid your child running down the aisles and crashing into someone or worse into breakable bottles! So, start your shopping by placing the heavier items into her little cart. She should still be able to push it but will have to make an effort thus slowing her down. This will also make it easier for you to direct her and avoid crashing. Once, I was in Trader Joe’s with my grandson and I placed the 6 wine bottles in his cart. I told him that since he had the bottles in his cart he had to be very careful. While we were walking through the store I wondered how many people thought I was crazy as we were getting quite a few smiles as people looked into his cart. I assure you he was very proud that I trusted him with the breakables and was extremely careful as we strolled through the store. Of course, I reminded him a few times of his “responsibility”. 


Be consistent and stick to your established rules

Finally, accept that sometimes you just have to leave the store. At this stage, if your child does not understand your words or does not “believe” them, you will have to show it by taking action. Calmly. If you have told your child that the rule of the store is that everyone walks (i.e. no running) and she insists on running and screams or cries when you place her in the cart, it is best to stop your shopping and leave. No complaining, no yelling, no berating. Just take action. This is not because of what others are thinking but because you want your child to learn that this rule is followed consistently. It happens to everyone and it’s not a failure on your part if you have to abandon a shopping trip. By sticking to your established rules, you are being consistent in your messaging to your child and helping her to know what to expect and what the boundaries are surrounding such an outing.

The ability to reason is a result of a much more sophisticated level of understanding than most 2 years old have. So there are many things that affect or relate to a child’s behavior (brain organization, nutrition, parenting style, etc.) but understanding is high up on the list. The more sophisticated your child’s understanding is, the easier it becomes. Well… not always, because the more sophisticated your toddler’s understanding becomes the more she will try to negotiate with you as well! In the end, that is a small price to pay. So, pay attention to the progression of brain development, keep giving your child information through language, keep engaging her in conversation and the activities of daily life, and enjoy the rewards of her output!  

There is a lot to discuss when it comes to dealing with children’s behavior and we look forward to more blogs on the subject in the future. For now, let’s keep increasing their level of understanding. Enjoy the ride!

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