Updated on 10.23.07

Handling A Child’s Material Wants and Impulses

Trent Hamm

My son is starting to reach the stage where he’s strongly attracted to the toy section when we’re shopping. This has already created a few interesting situations, because he’s getting bright enough that the older distraction techniques no longer work. It’s time to start treating him like a child and not like an infant.

We’ve all seen situations where the parent has an out-of-control child, screaming because they didn’t get the latest toy. I also know that I don’t want this for my child – a child so far wrapped up in consumerism and self-gratification that they’ve lost all control over themselves.

So what’s the solution? Lately, my wife and I have been looking carefully at this issue and we’ve found a big pile of tips for how to handle your child’s material wants and desires in a fashion that doesn’t result in a temper tantrum.

Minimize his exposure to advertisements, particularly those targeted to children. For the most part, this means strictly limiting his television viewing. In fact, he basically doesn’t watch television at all, other than some occasional sporting events (and he barely pays attention to those).

Don’t give into screaming temper tantrums at home. If our son throws a temper tantrum, he must learn that screaming won’t get him what he wants. As soon as I start giving him what he wants when he screams, he’ll equate screaming with successful acquisition of what he wants. Thus, sometimes I have to let him throw a temper tantrum at home. Thankfully, this is rare, and he’s learned it doesn’t work, but sometimes he sees other children doing it and tries it anyway, but we don’t give in to it.

Offer him other choices outside of the situation. If he starts seeming like he’s getting wound up about a toy in the store, I remind him of a few of his favorite toys at home and ask him which one we’re going to play with when we get home. Alternately, sometimes I’ll also throw in a trip to the park as a choice, particularly if one is already planned. This usually makes him think about it a bit, and I use that time to move far away from the toy that’s causing the anxiety.

Give him some small allowance and then allow him to use that to choose an item. We semi-regularly give him quarters, particularly when he does something good for the first time on his own. Then, when we go to the store, we’ll count up his change and see if he can get a new Matchbox car (his toy of choice right now). He has learned that four quarters plus a few pennies means a Matchbox car, so he can almost fish out the money and pay for it himself. This gives him a target in the toy section, something to look for. It’s also a great way to encourage counting skills and sorting skills.

Have a very, very low tolerance for public tantrums. If he actually reaches the point of screaming and yelling, we leave – immediately. He then has a “time out” in his car seat while I stand outside cooling my own heels. After that, if we need to, we may go back inside, but it’s strictly to finish shopping, pay for the items, and leave. Public places are not the appropriate location to throw a temper tantrum, and there needs to be negative consequences for such behavior.

So far, these tactics have worked extremely well in concert. He has only had one notable public tantrum in the last few months, and it was a long while ago – the “time out” in the car really did the trick. He also realizes now that the toys in the store are mostly to look at unless you have money to buy them, a key connection, I believe.

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  1. fiveberries says:

    My kids are a bit older than your son, but we’ve always been very careful about setting expectations *before* we go into a store. I will tell them that I will not be buying toys on a particular day, so don’t bother asking. Or, if we are buying toys, I’ll tell them their budget ahead of time. And, as with so many parenting moments, the trick is to make sure that you stick to it, no matter what. Because, like tantrums, once you give in just one time, you’ve got trouble.

    These are all great tips, and ones that I sincerely wish more parents would use (though I’m not exempt from having a child have a tantrum in a store!)

  2. Kate says:

    Congratulations on being a member of the parental minority that does not regard the world at large as synonymous with your own living room. I thank you for taking your responsibilities seriously. If only your behavior could rub off on more parents.

    When I dream, I dream big.

  3. sab says:

    Awesome, awesome tips! I don’t have kids, but I definitely hope to remember this stuff when I do (or when I start having nieces and nephews).

  4. Jasmine says:

    I really like your tips about ignoring tantrums and not accepting tantrums in public. I have so many friends that just don’t want to deal with the tears and setting clear limits and as a result give in and buy the toy. This sets a bad pattern for life, and one day kids are going to be throwing a tantrum for something larger. Rewarding poor behavior is never a good choice.

    The allowance thing is a great tip. I used to hoarde my allowance until I could buy something big, and I knew that I wouldn’t be getting something I wanted until I saved up for it or it was an incentive for good performance in school. It’s been a good life lesson, and I still operate this way in adult life.

  5. jm says:

    spankings are highly underrated these days…

  6. plonkee says:

    I’m not bothered by a small child having a temper tantrum in public as much as I am by the parent giving in to shut them up.

  7. Kat says:

    I am so glad you are setting limits and understand that parenting takes time and work.
    I really wish more people took the time to handle these issues when they are small and not when they are big or never.

  8. Diane says:

    Last night I was in Target and I came upon a girl of about 7 in the aisle in front of Polly Pocket. The little girl wanted a $9.99 set and the mom said no. The little brat jumped up and bare-handed her mother across the face and it worked like magic. I was so taken aback by the violent display that I made quick tracks. Shocking.

  9. Erica says:

    Great tips, too many parents fear tantrums unnecessarily.

    We haven’t encountered a full blown tantrum yet, it will come. And when it does, if we’re at home I’ll clear a ‘safe’ space and ignore the proceedings until it ends, I’ll act as if nothing has happened. If we are out I will use your technique, one warning and then we leave, a time out or a serious talking to will follow as we have had to leave.

    I too commend a parent for picking a child up and removing them from the situation, or standing firm, there’s no shame in your child having a tantrum until you cave in.

  10. !wanda says:

    Thank you for removing your child from the store when he has a tantrum. A child’s screaming is one of the worst sounds in the world, especially to someone who’s not used to it and who has no reason to like your kid.

  11. Mariette says:

    These are great tips Trent! One funny anecdote that brings home the importance of limiting a young child’s TV watching. When I was little I drove my parents nuts because I thought the news was the filler part where I could talk and that the commercials were the important bit that we were supposed to be watching.

  12. Woody says:

    I threw a tantrum maybe all of about 5 or 6 times in my childhood. Each time resulted it a quick smack and a terse “No!”, followed by an exit from public and a very irate parent the rest of the day. I learned that where I was at had no effect, be it at home or in a store, and I _never_ got what I wanted when I behaved poorly. (In fact it often resulted in my NOT getting what I wanted, even later on, as it became a symbol of my poor behavior.)

    My parents smacked me at most a couple dozen times in my childhood, and I never felt I was abused or scared in any way from it. I also don’t recall (nor to they) that I was a problem child, in part because I learned early that bad behavior was followed quickly by a repercussion, with extreme behavior seeing an equally extreme reaction.

    There are times (though very rare) when a quick smack or swat on the butt is appropriate for a child. This is such an instance. I’ve never understood the concept of “spankings”, as they tend to be far after the fact and commonly not in proportion to nor well associated with the precipitating deed. But I’ve also never understood the concept of “time outs” or trying to negotiate or argue with a child either. Children lack the tools and development needed to comprehend or comply with either, and wind up feeling tricked or empowered, neither of which is a good thing.

    When I have kids, I plan on using many of the same mechanism my parents used. And if someone takes issue with it because it’s not PC to smack your kid in a store, thats fine. I can smack them too… :)

  13. Brent says:

    I’ve got four kids, ages 5-12 so I know a few things about what your talking about. Coming up with a plan before hand is awesome but let me tell you they don’t always go as you plan.

    In regards to leaving the store for the temper tantrum I think it’s good sometimes but other times wrong to do. One of ours would throw the tantrum just to leave the store since they didn’t want to be there in the first place or sick of being there. We couldn’t very well let them dictate what needed to be done. Each situation was handles differntly but we learned quickly leaving the store wasn’t the solution, only adding to the problem.

    My point is to keep an open mind and have guidelines installed but be ready to throw them out the door with a seconds notice.

  14. Brent says:

    To add, in no way shape or form was I trying to imply to give in. My kids will stop dead in their tracks when I tell them no. If they want to keep up the fit I have no problems telling my 5-12 yr old kids that they are the one people are looking not me, that they are acting like a 2 yr old and not me.

  15. My oldest daughter is 4 on Friday and I have found that with her approaching birthday she is very aware that there will be gifts involved. As we’ve been shopping the last couple of months she’s told me numerous times about things she wants. My way of dealing with it has been to say that we’ll put it on her wishlist. That seems to help her understand that we don’t get everything we want (I explained that I have a wishlist too). But we’ve also talked about how Daddy works hard to make money for us and we would rather have daddy at home playing with us than working at the office to pay for a new toy.

  16. Danny says:

    I wish all parents took their kids out of the store when they threw a tantrum over getting a toy.

    Why are sporting goods and electronics (where I usually am in a store) always within screaming kid distance from the toy section?

  17. vh says:

    We were very lucky in that our son was not given to temper tantrums. But our best friends’ kids had a little more…uhm…zing.

    And for sure, the best thing they did was to pick up the little yowler and carry her or him out of the public place, the minute the tantrum started to pick up steam. The kid still screamed out in the parking lot or in the car, BUT: it didn’t take either of their two little folks long to learn that throwing a tantrum for X, Y, or Z didn’t work. Both kids grew up to be responsible, well behaved teens and successful adults.

    Striking a stressed-out yelling kid, IMHO, is counterproductive and speaks more about the parent than about the child’s behavior.

  18. FeeFiFoto says:

    Love your post. I just linked to it on my blog: http://feefifoto.typepad.com/feefifoto/2007/10/fell-through-th.html. I’ve been fighting those same battles for years. I devised a way to alleviate begging and whining while on vacation. I allocate each of my kids a certain amount of money each day of our trip, say ten dollars, to spend on anything they want as long as it’s not dangerous. Whatever they don’t spend rolls over to the next day and they get to keep whatever’s left by the end of the trip. The first time I did this my son spent his entire first day’s budget in an arcade while his sister saved hers; he was quite envious but he got the message. The next day he bypassed the arcade and got to buy himself some souvenirs.

  19. Oswegan says:

    I’ll tell you what has worked beautifully for us.

    We have three kids and they all have a list of jobs that they do. Some jobs they get paid for if they do them, some jobs they just have to do because they’re part of the family.

    We pay them every week, and the amount varies based on how many jobs actually got completed correctly during the past week.

    They are required to separate their money into three basic categories.

    1. They must put aside 10% to give to some type of charity, church or otherwise.

    2. They must set aside half of the remaining dollars into their grown-up money fund – money market, ira or otherwise ( this money is theirs when they leave our humble abode).

    3. They must set aside the rest as spending money. They can use this spending money to blow or they can save it for something big.

    We use the same system for money earned outside of the home. For example, my 14 year old boy babysits at church and earns 10 dollars per hour doing that.

    When we get to the store, and the begging begins, we say: “fine, you can buy that. As long as you brought your spending money and you have enough.”

    We never lend money at the store – the child must have the money with them to make the purchase, or come back when they do have the money.

    I kid you not, this has virtually put an end to the massive amounts of begging we used to endure.

    Our oldest has, since doing this system, saved nearly $2000.00 on his own, purchased his own X-Box 360 and multiple games, and has now almost saved enough for the $500.00 video camera he wants to buy.


    Try it, it works if you stick with it and be disciplined.


  20. sunny says:

    When each of my girls started high school I gave them a monthly allowance. I paid for clothes twice a year (Nov/Mar) we live in Florida so really just 2 seasons), medical bills, cell phone, food etc. The allowance was for any extra clothes they wanted, movies, music, dates, fun, makeup and gas for their cars.

    If at any time they felt that the allowance was insufficient they had to document their expenditures for the month and present a proposal.

    My youngest is now a senior in college and still gets the same amount we started with in 9th grade.
    She opted for part-time jobs from 16 on rather than do the budget presentation.

    Her older sister never asked for more either ;-) and now has a growing web business.

  21. paidtwice says:

    great post…. but your son goes to daycare right? Good luck with not exposing him to advertising images as he gets older. My son has never ever seen Barney on TV (he’s 3) and yet… he knows of Barney from his best friend’s backpack. And wants one. :sigh:

  22. mamacita says:

    Hey Trent — I am totally with you that television ads are a terrible influence on our kids. But in your zeal to limit your son’s exposure to these, don’t forget about the great programs on PBS. Those can be a great resource for kids and for parents. Cyberchase may become your favorite thing in a couple of years when your son is old enough for it.

    However, I will admit that PBS has gone completely overboard in allowing sponsors’ messages to become indistinguishable from commercials. We get around this by zipping through them on the DVR. Still, the other day my six year old son told me that he was “the proud sponsor” of something or other!

  23. Ken S. says:


    I like your ‘split your money into 3 piles’ idea. I think I’ll try to phase something similar in, but it might be tricky, since we havn’t done it so far….

    I heard a while ago about giving kids allowance early on (we started at 4 years old, now Louise is 5) – and giving them a dollar for each year of their age. Any less isn’t really enough $$ to do much with, and the parent end up having to buy stuff anything. But now I’ve got a 5 year old that waits for Allowance day so she can but a my little pony EVERY WEEK (4.99 @ Target – she usualy can find the tax money in change around the car & house).

    So while she understand that we won’t buy her toys at every store we visit and she needs to buy herself toys with her money, there’s very little deliberate savings going on. But then, she’s only 5….

  24. elizabeth says:

    This is a little different, but my mom always let my brother pick out one thing at the grocery store if he was good all day. Since both my parents worked almost all the shopping for everything was done on Saturday. Grocery shopping was always last. I am 8 years older than my brother, so I wasn’t much of an issue.

    If he fussed about getting something during the trip (a toy or whatever) then there would be no special treat at the grocery store. He was allowed only one thing. This put my mom in a bind a couple of times because if he put something back, then she couldn’t use it in the meal. He frequently picked out a veggie. When I was that age, it was most frequently fruit or cereal. But the point is he only got one thing. It didn’t cost my parents much and we were required to eat what we got, even if we decided we didn’t like it after we got it home.

  25. A.M.B,A. says:

    I also have two young kids, ages 4 and 5. We are not into TV so much, so the exposure to commercials are limited. But they do want – mainly anything to do with Thomas the Tank Engine. One solution that has worked for me is I rarely take the kids shopping (especially to Target). My oldest was over 3 years old before he entered a shopping mall. I am not a shopper. I go in, get what I need and leave. Bringing the kids only adds time, stress and the chance to bug me to buy something. I see exhausted parents and whining kids at the grocery store and think “Leave those kids at home. It’s worth paying a sitter for a couple of hours to shop in

  26. Ann says:

    As my son got older, we turned toy shopping trips into “research trips” He didn’t so very much want to have every transformer in the world, but he did want to be able to talk about them with the guys at school. So we’d pick an evening, which was his to go look at the shelves in toys are us. heaven help me,I started to feel like the kid though, as in MY thinking to myself “I’m tired, any more of this and I’m going to start to whine!” Now that he’s grown, we both have good memories of the trips.

  27. lcs says:

    How about not bringing your child with you to the store? I think this goes along with limiting exposure to TV. Limit exposure to ads and enticements at stores. Get a baby sitter, or one of you stay home with the kid.

  28. Kyle says:

    lcs (comment above), that is not solving the problem and not a realistic scenario for day to day living.

    Great tips Trent! We use several of them with our children. Kids are so smart that it takes big time consistency but it can be done.

  29. Ben says:

    As the father of two young boys I have found the best way to handle a tantrum is to firstly maintain a calm exterior. Secondly when I say a firm no, I would make sure that I am down at their eye-level. Being at eye-level means that your child doesn’t feel intimidated and usually can be calmly talked to. I picked up the eye-level trick from a parenting course that I did. Once I started using it, the tantrum frequency decreased quite rapidly. It doesn’t always work with my youngest because he can be pretty stubborn and wants to do things for himself.

    I am also quite happy to take my boys grocery shopping. I always get them to help pick out the fruit and vegetables, and my youngest will start unpacking the trolley at the check out without being asked.

    Bear in mind that children are quite unhibited when showing their emotions and that as a parent you need to not take what might get said by your child too personally. My oldest who is nearly five said something yesterday afternoon that I could have taken personally and been quite upset by. I knew why he said what he said and by this morning he greeted me with a smile. It took me a few years to work out how to stay calm as a parent and I’m sure I will have plenty of challenges in the years ahead, but I am thoroughly looking forward to them.

  30. KarenFLA says:

    When my kids were little I used to give them a dollar in change and let them go to garage sales with me to buy toys. They learned to budget and how to negotiate. If it was too much money, they couldn’t buy it. Years later we had a garage sale and they sold those toys and kept the money they made.
    My parents had my son once for a week and they excitedly took my son to the toy store and started piling items into the cart. My son looked at it and then said to them, “You’re very foolish. You could buy this all for a lot less money at a garage sale.”
    I also on special occasions, would give them each $2.14 and take them to the dollar store so they could pick out two items.

  31. Elizabeth says:

    As a parent of two teens (for the most part, very non-materialistic teens, I might add) I agree with most of the points you make and applaud your efforts.
    However, I’d recommend you take a good hard look at your allowance policy though and make sure that you think it through to its logical end. And do it quickly! One thing I’ve learned from having children is that they don’t like giving up traditions. How many times will your son be in a store over the next 10+ years? Are you prepared to fork over an “allowance” every time? And do you have the storage space for that many Matchbox cars? That’s a bit tongue-in-cheek but my point is a serious one. Are you sure you want him to expect a little something every time he goes shopping? You say that this is a “semi-regular” event — have you thought through any critera? If it’s simply at your whim then I guarantee it will become a source of unhappiness down the road.

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