Sometimes parents have to make dramatic changes in our lives: break habits, shift gears, or renounce cherished parenting theories for the good of our children. Sometimes, though, we can do something really good for our kids by just looking at the natural pattern of our lives, and squeezing every bit of good we can out of what’s already there.
I’ve written about the advantages of having siblings, and I no longer worry that having a big family inevitably means that the kids will be neglected. It does take some vigilance, however, to make sure our kids feel important. No matter how much nurturing and support and benefit kids get from each other, they do need one-on-one time with their parents.
But there’s so many of them, and so few of me! And so little time. I would love to do princess luncheons or leisurely canoe trips with individual kids, but there simply isn’t time. Even when we were homeschooling, private time together was hard to come by.
So what we do is to turn the weekend chores into a special event: the fabled Shopping Turn. It takes me several hours to do the weekly grocery and household shopping anyway, so each week, I take one kid with me. All we do is hit the department store, the drive-thru dollar menu, the dollar store, and the supermarket (and, to my sorrow, the pet store to buy feeder crickets), but this little tradition has been incredibly fruitful. Here’s how:
I learn about my kids. As I’ve written, it’s extremely important to establish an easy day-to-day relationship with kids, in order to be ready when trickier issues turn up. Also, reticent kids will clam up if you try to schedule an Important Conversation, but will reveal a world of information about themselves when they’re casually shopping. I reserve some time for senseless, child-led browsing, and kids will tell you about their tastes, their needs, desires, worries and questions big and small without even realizing they’re doing it—if you pay attention.
They learn about me. I get very chatty when I shop, because it’s so darn boring; so we have what I hope are interesting conversations about politics, religion, music or whatever comes up—things that I may not have time to share with kids in the swirl of bodies at home. It’s okay to talk over their heads a little bit, as long as it’s interesting.
It gives them some choices. Kids from big families are used to compromising or making do. These skills are good, but kids really appreciate having some control over even little things, like where to eat lunch, what to choose for weekend dessert, or whether to get fruit snacks or granola bars for everyone’s lunch bags this week. It also gives them the power of being considerate: I’ve seen a 6-year-old boy choose his second-favorite cereal, of his own free will, because he knows the other kids don’t like his favorite kind! (Yes, I bought both, after humiliating him with a proud smooch.)
They can be genuinely helpful. Even young kids can pick up something I dropped or help me find the right kind of mustard, and older kids are invaluable for running errands and lifting heavy stuff. Kids shouldn’t be turned into servants, but genuine responsibility leads to a sense of self-worth, which is vital for strength of character.
They pick up lots of practical knowledge. I try not to lecture, and I don’t make them do mental calculations to test their math, but my kids are very familiar with, for instance, getting a better deal based on the unit price. They can see clearly that if we want to buy the fancy cookies, we’ll have to say no to the fancy crackers—that items don’t just magically appear in the cabinet, but are the result of budgeting and making deliberate decisions. They understand about buying produce in season, and they grasp the concept of putting off a purchase for a few weeks until it’s on sale. These are things many adults don’t understand!
Maybe most importantly of all, it tells them that I like being with them. I always thank each kid for keeping me company, and I mean it. Kids need to know they’re loved and needed, but they also need to know they’re liked. They need to hear it, in so many words.
I don’t know if they’ll continue to enjoy this tradition as they get older. I can imagine a future teenage boy rolling his eyes when I gush over that babyish Shopping Turn—so maybe we’ll have to tweak the routine. But in the meantime, all of my kids look forward to their turn—and so do I.
What simple idea has yielded great results in your family?