Updated on 07.28.07

Handling The Frivolous Wants Of A Toddler Is Not Much Different Than Handling My Own Frivolous Wants

Trent Hamm

My wife and son and I were shopping yesterday evening when we wandered upon the toy department of a local department store. Our son, at twenty and a half months, has reached the age where he’s quite interested in the items here and he particularly wanted a large rubber ball that cost about three dollars. He kept pointing out it and shouting “Blue ball!” and giving the sign for please.

I tried three techniques with him in concert that ended up getting him out of the toy section with his happiness intact:

First, I reminded him of a similar toy he has at home. He has a volleyball that he loves to roll around on the floor, sit on, and so forth. It’s also blue and it’s roughly the same size as the ball he spied at the store. I talked to him about the ball at home and reminded him of the fun we’ve had playing with it.

Next, I distracted him a bit with a game that we often play. After getting him to think about the volleyball at home, we played a very simple game of “capture the spider” where I pretend my hand is a spider and he captures it. This will often distract him for a minute and it was long enough to get us out of the area.

Finally, I told him he was a good boy as we left the toy section. I told him he was very good for not getting mad about the ball and that I was proud of him, then we played “capture the spider” a bit more.

In a way, this is not much different than the tricks I use on myself to talk myself out of frivolous expenses:

I think of other items I have already that do similar things and ask myself if this new item is needed, just like when I reminded my son of the blue volleyball at home.

I use the ten second rule and give myself a bit of a distraction from the initial wave of desire to make a purchase. This is much like playing “capture the spider” with my son.

I use some positive reinforcement when I leave, thinking that I made a really good choice not buying the item. Just like when I told my son he was good for not getting upset and demanding the item.

These same things work on an adult and a toddler because they’re truly effective techniques. Comparison, delay, and self-congratulation are all ways to avoid making bad choices and reinforcing good ones. My wife (who’s really into parenting issues) says that it’s also very good that I often treat my son like he’s a miniature adult, explaining things to him in the same voice and tone that I’d use with anyone.

Of course, you could also conclude that I have the shopping mentality of a toddler. I think the first conclusion is more spot-on, though.

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  1. Very clever ways to get your son distracted :). I pretty much do the same thing with my two boys. Every month, it’s a new obsession from “Pooh” to “Thomas the Tank Engine”. My ears are ringing from their theme songs. But that’s a good sign at least — this means I hear the same things over and over, indicating money well spent on a frequently watched DVD or CD!

  2. Miguel says:

    You’re a good father Trent. I’ve had to do the same stuff with my 21 month old daughter.

  3. Ashia says:

    Perfect techniques to use on my gadget-hungry husband. ‘ Course, then he gets on one of his favorite tech blogs and the cycle continues!
    thanks for the refresher course in navigating this often rocky course!

  4. Nick in Iraq says:

    I really enjoyed this post. Good on you for taking the time to deal with your son in a healthy, productive manner, rather than just saying No, and leaving. That’s how those screaming kids get started in stores…

  5. Kenny says:

    It’s good to learn tips like these. Especially when they work.

    One tip that’s worked with much success with my kids is to show them the shopping list we made before leaving home and saying “it’s not on our list. We can’t get it today,” or “we didn’t come here today to buy that, it’s not on the list.”

    There is one way that it backfires, though. The kids are starting to ask to put things on the list before we leave home. Now we ask them if they have saved up the money to buy it themselves. Since none of them really get an allowance yet, we already know the answer to that question is “no.”

    Now the kids are pulling out their own teeth in order for the tooth fairy to visit so they can get a dollar towards their goals! (not really, but it’s sort of funny…)

  6. Very nice Trent. It is encouraging to see other parents in action, and trying to build strong character into their children.

    I also find sometimes the flat out gentle no is helpful. Our son has come to believe no means no, and depending on his mood is able to accept it without much problem.

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