My kids always whine for things at the grocery store

Your Life
Dr. Cathleen McGreal
June, 2018

Q: My kids are always whining for things at the grocery store – do I give in to shut them up?

The most memorable supermarket meltdown in our family happened when my oldest daughter was 18 months. In the checkout lane she was desperately reaching for a treat which I didn’t purchase. After buying our groceries I maneuvered the cart to a bench, planning to calm her down. Instead, when she was out of the cart she threw herself to the floor in a tantrum. It didn’t last too long, but it seemed like forever as other shoppers walked by giving me understanding, smiling looks or glares. When we give in to children’s crying or whining in public places, it is usually because we are embarrassed or concerned about what others might be thinking. But giving in to inappropriate behavior is never a good plan!

Reinforce positive behaviors. Getting a treat is positive reinforcement for the child. You could think of it as, “If I behave this way, something good gets added to my world!” We don’t want to teach that whining leads to a positive outcome. Negative reinforcement leads to a behavior being repeated, too. (Negative reinforcement is often misunderstood – it is not punishment). In negative reinforcement something negative is being taken away and so it makes that behavior rewarding. If you give in to children by buying a treat, then you are taking away their whining and your own embarrassment which feels rewarding in the moment. But you are setting up a pattern of unhealthy behaviors.

Plan for success. Make a weekly shopping list so that shopping is efficient. Shopping after a meal reduces our own impulse purchases and makes it more likely that kids will be in better moods. Tired kids tend to be moodier, too, so try to schedule the trips when they are well-rested. Decide ahead of time what the parameters will be for treats and then stick to your decision. With younger children, be clear that you understand what they are asking for but don’t give in. “I know that you want candy, but we aren’t buying candy bars today.” With older children, you can remind them to bring their own chore money or allowance for any purchases they might want to make at the store. When it comes to spending their own money, kids often become more discerning consumers!

If shopping with the kids is overwhelming, then the home-delivery services offered by many stores might be worthwhile. But shopping can be an opportunity to guide your children in the development of self-control. Your librarian can help you find children’s books on this topic to initiate conversations at home. Making choices regarding purchases is challenging throughout our lives. Viewing weekly grocery trips as opportunities for their growth can change your perspective. Choose a Bible verse to center yourself when the kids act up: "Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer." (Rom 12:12)