Shopping Survival Guide

by Vicky Mlyniec

Shopping Survival Guide

Shopping for holiday presents was once a joyous experience. Floating from store to store past gorgeous window displays, I'd spend hours leisurely deliberating over cable knit sweaters for my husband while Christmas carols wafted around me.

And then I became encumbered by tugging hands and tote bags bulging with juice boxes. Rather than carefully selecting cardigans, I'd grab any one that would do while 4-year-old Sammy hid in a clothing rack and 1-year-old Nate bucked and twisted in his stroller, his face reddening for an ear-splitting wail.

"If you think young children are going to cheerfully accompany you on a four-hour buying expedition, think again," says Elizabeth Pantley, author of Kid Cooperation. "They just can't handle huge amounts of time on the run."

I knew that, of course, but shopping solo has never seemed a viable option. In December, babysitters become busier than Santa's elves, and my husband works late to make up for the time he's going to take off after I've done all the buying. Ordering gifts from catalogs or over the Internet is an option, but what busy mom wants to end up standing in line at the post office, sending things back?

With the following strategies, holiday shopping with the kids can be more productive and even pleasant.

Vicky Mlyniec writes essays and parenting articles for several regional and national magazines. She lives in California with her husband and two sons.

Adjust Your Expectations—And Your Child's

If your daughter can't normally tolerate 20 minutes at the hardware store, she's not going to sit calmly for hours in the mall. Face it: Your shop-'til-you-drop days are over, at least for a few years. Several shorter trips—an hour or two at a time—are less taxing on everyone.

Kids old enough to understand that you're shopping for others won't be pleased by the prospect. Temper the gimmes by explaining your agenda before you get to the stores, says Linda Jessup, director of the nonprofit Parent Encouragement Program, in Kensington, MD: "You can say, 'Sometimes we shop for you, like when we got your tricycle. Today we're shopping for your cousins.'"

Beth Pugliese encourages her 5-and 9-year-olds to refine their own wish lists, a task even a 3-year-old will enjoy. "I tell them to be on the lookout for things they might not have thought of," says Pugliese, of San Jose, CA. "They get so distracted, they don't care that I'm not buying goodies for them that day."

Bring the Right Stuff

Ditch the diaper bag and the purse, and opt for a knapsack and a fanny pack. Your hands will be free but you'll still have all the changing essentials, plus the drinks and bags of dry cereal and other munchies that no sane parent would leave home without. And there's no heavy shoulder bag to swing down and bonk your child on the head every time you bend over to talk to him or give him a kiss.

Some parents prefer a sling or other infant carrier to the bulk of a stroller, but a set of wheels will spare your back. Take one even if your child has been walking well for months, says Pantley: "He won't constantly beg to be carried, and if he wants, he can walk holding onto it, which is a good way to keep track of him." And of course, you can hang bags on the handles or stash them in the basket underneath.

Perhaps more important than the right gear: the right people. Your trip will be simpler if an extra helper—such as your husband, your mother, or a sitter—comes along. He or she can distract or comfort a cranky child and help schlep parcels as well. Randi Asher, of New Haven, CT, and the mother of 19-month-old Rachel, shops with a friend who has a child the same age. "The kids are thrilled to be with each other, and whenever Marianne or I want to look at a product or make a purchase, the other one watches both of them."

Bring a shopping list rather than chance wasting the 43 minutes your baby's in a good mood hoping you'll stumble across the perfect gift. Organize the list by store, so you don't realize at the opposite end of the mall that you forgot the cookie jar for Aunt Gladys back at Macy's. Or do all your buying in one store. Five years ago, Lisa Barca-Hall, of Santa Cruz, CA, and a mother of seven, ages 1 month to 19 years, gave books to everyone on her list. As a bonus, it was story time when she arrived at the store—four of her kids sat enthralled while she made her selections.

Dress your child in comfortable, easy-on/easy-off clothes for faster bathroom breaks. Keep bulky outerwear in the car if the walkway to the stores is enclosed, or stash it in lockers once you're inside.

Time the Trip

Although it's smart to shop off hours (soon after the stores open or in the early evening), it won't make much difference to a toddler who hasn't napped that there are 3,000 instead of 5,000 people in the department store. Unless your child can snooze amid chaos, let her catch some quick shuteye at home before heading out.

Shopping goes more smoothly for Heidi Tolle, of New Orleans, if she waits until after her 2 1/2- and 4-year-old daughters have had some time to play. "Letting them get some energy out—running, jumping, dancing—makes them calmer in the stores," Tolle says.

Kids 3 and up will be better troopers if they know the day's itinerary. Explain, "First we're going to the clothing store, then the bookstore. Then, we'll have lunch. After that, one more store, and we'll go home." Providing updates ("Okay, now we're done at the bookstore. All we have left is…") lets them know that an end is really in sight.

Watch for droopy eyes and other signs that it's time for a nap. A short rest on a bench and something to drink may perk up your youngster; if not, don't test her limits—finish up another time.

Involve Your Child

Kids love to help, and they're more likely to cooperate if they feel like participants. Those as young as 3 can brainstorm with you beforehand ("What do you think Uncle Ralph will enjoy? Would Grandma like a red or a blue scarf?"). If his ideas are not too outlandish—a sequined dress for Uncle Ralph, or a powerboat for Grandma—he'll get to feel like it's his shopping trip too.

Once you've come up with some possibilities, have him make a shopping list. If he's too young to write, he can cut out photos from magazines or department store circulars or draw pictures. As items are found, he can mark off his progress.

Elizabeth Ellis, Ph.D., author of Raising a Responsible Child, keeps her kids interested during shopping expeditions by teaching them something new. "When they were 5 or 6, I'd have them memorize where we parked, then ask them to help find the car at the end of the trip," she says. "Or I'd take them to the mall's directory and show them how to read it so they could guide me to the next store." A 4-year-old can speak to clerks to find out where things are; even younger kids can hand money to a cashier. Or bring a little purse or bag and put your child in charge of holding on to receipts for possible returns.

Dahlia Maltz, 3, and her 5-year-old sister, Ahuva, like to carry their own packages—"especially if what's inside is their idea, or something for one of their friends," says their mother, Rivka, of Monsey, NY. She's happy not only for the extra help—having her daughters' hands occupied means they're less likely to tot-handle fragile or easily-soiled merchandise.

Take a Few Kid-Friendly Breaks

It's easy to get so caught up in present hunting that we whiz right by the things that are most interesting to our children, like Christmas trees or decorations. Try to budget some time to check out the surroundings.

Other ways to build in fun: Divide the outing in half, with lunch at a favorite fast-food restaurant. (Bonus: A kids'-meal toy has the potential to keep your child entertained when you resume shopping.)

Leora Itzhaki, of Charlotte, NC, takes 3-year-old Noah to a toy store that has a train table he can play with. A mid-trip walk through a pet shop recharges Rachel Asher, whose mom saves the toy store for when her daughter wants to get out of the stroller and move around.

The rest room at some upscale department stores can be a welcome oasis, offering couches and a quiet place to nurse or just relax. For Deana Greenberg, of Frederick, MD, the Nordstrom rest room was ideal when Julianna, now 2 1/2, was just toddling, since it was confined and had soft furniture. Greenberg could ease her tired feet while Julianna waddled to her heart's content.

It wouldn't be December without long lines, so make sure your child has a toy or book to keep her busy while she waits. Randi Asher packed a bib with pockets that she filled with Cheerios for then 1-year-old Rachel to play with and munch on. A pacifier or chewy toy clipped to an infant's clothing or attached by links to the stroller can also hold a child's interest, for a few minutes anyway. Don't bring an irreplaceable favorite bunny; lose it and you'll spend the rest of the day scouring the mall.

Games like "I Spy" or "Find-something-that-begins-with-this-letter," for kids learning the alphabet, can also help pass the time. Lori Bartel, of Campbell, CA, carries a magnifying glass that 3-year-old Kathryn gets to use only when they're standing in line (she looks at items from her mom's purse). Or Bartel asks her daughter to tell her (quietly) if she sees anyone in the store who reminds her of her favorite story characters.

Go Home!

When your—or your child's—time limit is up, call it quits. And do so before your youngster begins a meltdown. I learned to stash extra snacks and drinks in the car, plus something special, like a holiday sweet. It's amazing how the mention of that treat will add spring to the step of a child who just swore there was no possible way he could make it all the way back to the car.

Make a point of thanking your kids for their patience and contributions: "Grandma will be so proud to know that you helped find that beautiful necklace for her."

At home, have a quick, easy meal ready to zap and throw on the table (like a frozen pizza and a salad-in-a-bag) and, if you can, take some time off from chores to relax with your fellow shoppers.

Reward yourselves and wind down by sitting cozily with your feet up together and reading a favorite holiday book. It will put you back in touch with the non-commercial joys of the season, not to mention the simple pleasure of being with your family.