Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Young Boys in the Store: Battleground Strategies

Little boys exude energy. I am convinced they wake up with a pre-set amount that simply must be burned throughout the day; although, often, it seems like a snowball effect: the more they use, the more they gain. Having only grown up with sisters, and now raising three boys of my own, this boy energy can be so foreign to me. I’m still not entirely used to it, or—to be perfectly honest—always comfortable with it, especially when they’re running laps around the living room, trying to jump off the furniture or stairs, or any other act that resembles Tigger on Red Bull.

Handling this boy energy out in public, particularly at a store, can be challenging. When does it cross the line from normal boy behavior to inappropriate behavior? While on one hand, I may need to loosen up and accept their boyishness; on the other hand, sometimes I probably need to be more firm with discipline and consistent with follow-through. It’s tough to find the middle-ground.

For example, the other day, we went to the mall. The boys did really well in Target, our first-stop. From there, they wanted to stop at the germ-infested play-land, but I wanted to run one very quick errand at the department store first. While I was at the makeup counter, my oldest son started making airplanes out of foundation sponges and q-tips. My middle son was checking out the mannequin nearby, trying to figure out how he could move her arms and hands like his Transformers. My youngest was strapped in the stroller, voicing his displeasure at being trapped. Some of the workers were amused at their antics, but I could tell from the disapproving glances she kept sending the boys, that the older lady helping me was probably wondering if they were hopped up on caffeine.

I can tell you story after story like the one I just shared. Taking all the boys to the store with me usually means I’ll return with high blood pressure and in a real grouchy mood. Since I have three boys and there’s a good chance that our fourth someday (I’m not pregnant now) will be a boy, I better get a handle on the whole-boy-energy-out-in-public thing.

While I’m not excusing bad behavior (after all, boys still need to learn self-discipline and proper social behavior), our expectations of our boys in public settings need to be realistic. I think, depending on their energy level, it may be expecting too much to expect them to stay at my side at all times like little robots. When I asked for her advice, my pastor’s wife (who raised two wonderful sons and a daughter) shared that we each need to set our own limits for our own families. We are all different, and we should not try to clone children or families. So start by forming, and then knowing, your personal expectations for your children’s behavior.

From there, we teach those expectations and follow-through with consequences. This takes time. It is helpful, for those of us with multiple children, to take each child separately to the store so we can devote your full attention just to training him. Make behavior expectations clear (keep the rules fairly simple, no more than three if he’s very young) and deal with it immediately if he steps over the line. Leave your cart; leave the store; get in your vehicle for a little talk and any other consequences; go back in. Do this as often as necessary on this training exercise.

Once our children have mastered their basic training, it is time to take them on field exercises. My boys do really well with me one-on-one in the store; it’s when they’re together that the herd mentality comes out. Here are my best and brightest strategies for surviving the battlefield:

  1. Know their limits
  2. If unsure of their limits, it is far better to underestimate than overestimate.
  3. Keep trips short. If they get bored, boys will create their own activity. This will usually not go too well for you.  

  4. By keeping trips short, the boys have a greater chance of success. They'll be proud they pleased you, and you'll be pleased with how everything went, instead of returning home super-stressed and feeling like a failure. You can build from this point.
  5. Limit trips to one store, two max. My boys do so much better when we only go to one; the problems usually emerge at the second store for all the above reasons (overestimating their limits, they're getting bored, they're creating their own activities to counter-act their boredom...).
  6. Boys like to run. You set the parameters of where they can run. Maybe there's a grocery store aisle with no one in it. You can make a game out of it and let them run from point x to point y. Then they have to halt and stay by you until the next chance to burn some steam.
  7. Involve them by having them grab items for you. They can burn some of their energy by getting four oranges, a bunch of celery, three green peppers, a loaf of bread, etc.
  8. Ask the grocery store manager talk to your boys about what kind of behavior he/she expects from kids in the store. This will make a strong impression, especially since it comes from a stranger and not Mom.
  9. Plan in time for discipline issues.
  10. Remember that training your boys is more important than anything else on your schedule. Getting home from the store in time for lunch or dinner is not as important as taking the time necessary to train our boys and establishing consistency with consequences if they cross your behavior expectation lines. This will build their respect of you; you will reap good fruit from that for years to come.
  11. Pray! Ask for God's help, especially if it does not go well, and you're tempted to lose your cool. Talking to our children calmly is more likely to result in a change in their behavior than if we were to yell at them.
  12. Don't give up. While trips that don't go well can leave us feeling like never taking our boys to the store with us again, it is important to get back out in the field. You'll make memories and learn new things (who knew you could make an airplane out of a makeup sponge and q-tip?). Plus, your boys' smiling faces and youthful energy may just be the rays of sunshine someone really needed that day.
If you have any other strategies for success in the store with little boys, I'd love for you to share in the comment section!


  1. Wow. I love this post and your advice. As the mother of 3 young boys, I too have difficulty with their behavior in stores. I like the idea of taking each child to the store, alone, to help them learn how to behave. I am definitely going to do this!

  2. Thank you so much for this post. As a mom of two little boys I struggle with these same issues. How can I allow them to be boys, but still act appropiately in public?

    It's usually pretty easy to tell the people that have never raised a young boy. Your children seemed well enough in the dept store to me. Forget the disapproving looks and keep up what you are doing. Great advice!!

  3. I'm in the same boat as you, I had all sisters now 2 boys. My boys are fine when they are with me. It's when my husband tags along that they "act up" They run all around and act like well, boys. Most of the time my four year old listens to me even when daddy is there, but my 18 month old thinks it's funny. Thanks for all the great advice!

  4. As the mom of two girls (one not yet old enough to be any trouble), I must say that these tips serve equally well for daughters! My oldest is a terrible shopper! I think the free reign to run in one aisle idea might help us a lot.

  5. I just want to thank you for your posts. I found your blog from a link from Organzing Junkie. I have to admit I was in tears reading your posts on Anger management....for a few reasons. It's such a relief to know that I'm not the only one struggling!! I grew up with 2 sisters and no boys in the family. I have 2 boys (and now a daughter) and sometimes I am just at a loss with what to do with these boys!! I don't have any boy experience at all! While I KNOW these precious, amazing boys are a gift from the Lord and I have been given the privlege to raise them, it is a challenge to say the least!!! I can't wait to read more of your posts...thank you again for sharing your experiences, thoughts, and advice. =)

  6. Thank you so much for this post! I am an Australian mum who lives on a remote sheep station and goes to town only once per week (we live 100km from any town or store) for groceries, swimming lessons and to run erinds. Whilst I don't have boys I do have a VERY energetic 3 year old girl and a 6 month old girl. Trying to "control" my 3 year old's behaviour in the shops is somewhat unrealistic at the best of times and I have found myself more and more buying over the net to limit such stop off whilst in town. This has helped tremendously! I now only have to make the bare minimum of stops whilst in town such as depositing money at the bank, buying anything that may be needed short notice and groceries. Everything else can be purchased over the net! I even buy my plants now over the internet due to our last visit at the nursery resulting in my daughter presenting all of the olives she had picked off the potted plants to the shop keeper at the counter!! Quite embarassing! Whilst it is essential for our kids to learn appropriate behaviour in public I think that we all must keep our expectations of our little ones realistic in that they get bored very quickly! Limit what needs to be done and make the most of this wonderful tool that we all obviously know how to use quite well! You will remain less frazzled and more grounded for it and your child will be happier for it also!