A few days ago, I found myself at a store with my three year old son. I had to stop in and pick up a few items because we had some extended family members visiting us.
So, the two of us strolled through the store. He’s decided that he’s too big to ride in the shopping cart, so we have a simple rule that he has to either hold my hand or hold onto the cart while we’re in the store.
Almost immediately, he asked to visit the toy section. I told him that if he was good, we could visit the toy section for five minutes on our way out of the store. That seemed to please him, so I found the items on my shopping list and put them in the cart while he behaved himself.
Because he did so well, we went to the toy section. I told him on the way there that we were only staying for five minutes and that we weren’t buying any toys today.
I bet you can guess what happened.
Very quickly, he found the single toy he wants most in the world – a Transformers Rescue Bot (which is a simple transforming robot toy that three year olds can easily manipulate). He spent the whole five minutes sitting there studying this toy and trying to play with it through the packaging.
When I told him it was time to go and that he had to put the toy back on the shelf, he went into meltdown mode. He pulled the “going limp” trick. He cried and shouted.
I promptly picked him up, put him in the cart, and left the store as quickly as possible.
There are a few things worth noting here.
First, there was no way on Earth I was giving in to his request for a toy. It simply was not going to happen. I made it clear to him that there would be no toys bought on that day and I stuck to my word.
Second, once he became upset and refused to leave, my goal was to exit the environment with him with as little fuss as possible. Again, there’s no negotiation here. He was allotted some time to look at toys and that time ended, so we leave.
What I’ve found is this: if you stick to the enforcement of these kinds of rules when they’re young and easy to carry, they abide by them much easier when they’re older. I sometimes had meltdowns like this with my other children when they were younger, and I responded by picking them up and removing them from the situation. I cannot recall the last time either one of my older children had such a meltdown.
In the end, though, this type of situation is all about learning impulse control, something that can be a struggle all throughout our lives.
One of my key roles as a parent is to give my children the cognitive and emotional tools they’ll need to be successful adults.
Throughout their lives, my children are going to find themselves in situations where they’re going to desire some material object. They’re going to want it so badly. They’re going to want to buy it now.
If they give into that impulse repeatedly, they begin to set up a pattern where they do not have to wait for material gratification. They view “having it now” as normal, and when it becomes possible for them to spend their own money (or their own credit) in such a way, they’ll continue that “have it now” mindset and spend with reckless abandon.
I did it myself, as have countless other adults out there who dug themselves a healthy debt hole.
Children are going to want things. The job we have as parents is to teach them to control those desires in an effective way that won’t lead them to financial ruin down the road.