Toddler Wisdom: How to Avoid Toy Store Tantrums

Olive is smack dab in the middle of toddler life. She is 2.5 years old, and our days are energetic, loud, and endlessly entertaining.

They’re also exhausting. I have a chronic kidney condition which leaves me running at 50-75% of the energy of a typical person, so statements like this don’t really mean anything most of the time because, um, I’m pretty much always exhausted. Just doing the basic day-to-day stuff leaves me feeling pretty wiped out – the best comparison I can give is that bone-tired, depleted, running-on-empty feeling you get when you have the cold or the flu. Except that it’s all of the time. Forever. Yayyyy…?

Anyway, the point of all this is that for me, exhaustion is hard to gauge. It was somehow incredibly reassuring then, when I came home from my trip last week and my mom told me that she had lost 7 pounds, and forgot just how much work it was running after a two-year-old all day. Guys, I’ve never been so happy to see my mom worn out.

I’m not malingering! Or exaggerating! The struggle is real!

It was especially comforting because I hold myself to pretty high standards when it comes to parenting, having been fortunate enough to be surrounded by some really amazing role models for motherhood. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law, my close friends, my birth group, and my own mother who raised six kids. SIX.

Every time I feel like complaining about being tired with Olive, I imagine taking care of Olive plus five more, or think about my sister-in-law who runs and cooks gourmet meals and has an immaculate house and has four kids (including twins! I feel like that wholly deserves to be written in italics AND underlined.) I mean, I have one. One! One measly little kid! Complaining would be a dick move. So I don’t. Mostly.

Nonetheless, doing it alone has been tough at times, and I have developed some strategies along the way – things I will definitely use with my next child if I have one. I thought I’d write them down before I forget so that you other toddler parents out there could put them to the test. I’ll post them as they occur to me, and file them under the Toddler Wisdom tag so you can find them all easily when I’m done rambling.

Without any further ado….the first:

How to avoid toy store tantrums-

I say “toy store” but I really mean any store, because are you aware that in this, the year of our lord 2015, even gas stations sell racks full of toys? Gas stations. Every single checkout aisle everywhere is crammed with tantrum-bait, and I take Olive with me on nearly 100% of my errands so we encounter a lot of it.

Yet, look at me! I can smugly declare that she has probably had less than three actual tantrums when it comes time to leave without the toys. Here’s how we do it.

1. No toys for you! I have never bought her anything she picked up in a store unless we went there specifically for that item. Seriously, never. This is key. My intro to Psych class taught me that intermittent reinforcement is the most powerful kind of reinforcement- even more so than continuous reinforcement.

What this means is that if you give in to the “I want this! I need this!” clutching desperation even a few times, they will try to re-create that same result every single time – because you never know! If you’ve already caved in at the checkout line once or twice or eighteen times (no judgement here!) you can still get on board but it might take a little longer for your little one to adjust now that she knows that you’re weak. WEAK, I SAY!

2. Clear eyes, full arms, can’t lose.  While I don’t buy Olive anything, she is allowed to carry things around with her while we are still in the store. This means that if you ever run into us shopping, Olive’s arms will probably be filled with a stuffed animal, an oddly large plastic guinea pig, a pinwheel, or some other essential item she managed got her chubby little hands on. Now, I know that this may seem like the worst idea ever, but it’s actually good. I promise! Doing this means that you don’t have to keep saying “No” a million times as you make your way through the aisles, further increasing the probability of your kid losing his shit in Aisle 4. You simply say, “Sure!” and blithely hand them the toy and move on with your life.

The key here is clear expectations. When she was younger Olive often had to ask me to reach things, and now that she’s older she knows she has to ask before touching something, and so when she asks I always remind her “You can carry this around with you, but we are not taking it home with us, OK?” and I wait for agreement. These days, for extra points I sometimes pretend to be Stuart’s mother and ask, “What does mummy say about looking at things in the store?” and wait for her to parrot, “I just can look at ’em but I NOT take ’em home.” Boom. Expectations: clear. Creepy gold star: earned.

3. The checkout line. Our own Waterloo. As we finish up the shopping and go to stand in line, I let her know that she needs to get ready to say goodbye to the toy. I find 1-2 minute warnings like this essential to any toddler transition, but especially when it involves a neon pink sparkly plush unicorn/pegasus with eyes the size of saucers. So I give the warning and make sure she hears me and acknowledges what I’ve said.

4. The Final Countdown. Before I pay, or while the cashier is ringing things up, I tell her it’s time to say goodbye now. She quite often gets sad about this, which is totally understandable – it’s tough to let go of the things you want. Especially if they rattle or spin or talk to you in an eerily high-pitched voice.

Usually I will have to ask her once or twice, and then we find a nice place to leave the toy (apologies to the store employee who has to re-shelve the item, but it’s probably better for everyone this way

Somehow finding a nice place for the toy to stay makes her feel better, and there’s usually a very dramatic process of hugging, kissing, waving, and saying goodbye to the toy. But then she happily grabs my hand and off we go.

[Edited February 20, 2017 to add: When Olive reached around 3.5 years old – old enough to be trusted to navigate a store on her own – our routine changed to include her putting the toy back where it came from while I waited in line at the checkout.]


(Judgy old ladies lose because they can’t judge you today, but I’m sure they’ll get you on something tomorrow!)


I’ve been doing this with Olive since she was old enough to fall in love with inanimate objects, so I am hoping this track record means it might work for your little tyrant, too.

If you have anything you want me to ramble about in future toddler wisdom posts – let me know in the comments! Alternately, if you know of any sort of fast-acting tranquilizer that is safe to administer to a child so that you might be able to get them dressed without eighteen minutes of role play, let me know!

(Asking for a friend. Obviously.)



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  • Reply Saffron April 26, 2015 at 10:22 PM

    More where this came from! My little un only 4 months (any tips on teething?! 🙂 ) and I am already wondering quite how I am going to deal with a 2 year old whilst at the same time REALLY looking forward to it as lets say I didn’t find the newborn stage a whole lotta fun (once he hit three months it was all good). So I am bookmarking this page and thanks to you!

    • Reply sweetmadeleine April 27, 2015 at 10:06 AM

      A baby washcloth soaked in water and frozen in a v-shape used to be Olive’s favourite thing when she was teething! And the cloth soaked up the drool, which was helpful, too 🙂
      There is another tag I used to use called “baby wisdom” that might help your little one!

      • Reply Saffron April 27, 2015 at 6:10 PM

        Thank you

  • Reply Abbie April 27, 2015 at 5:17 AM

    Please give some wisdom on eating.. Very particular eater over here in these parts and it is exhausting!! Will not try ANYTHING and I am getting quite tired (plus feeling horribly guilty) of opening the can of Elmo (organic at least) soup.
    As far as getting dressed.. It’s Sesame Street for those 5 minutes.

    • Reply sweetmadeleine April 27, 2015 at 10:05 AM

      I will try to tackle this one, but I don’t know how much help I will be, somehow I lucked out with a kid who will eat literally anything. But my mom always used to say “Your responsibility as a parent includes deciding what food to provide and when, your child gets to decide if they eat, and how much.” So I provide food for Olive and she gets to decide if she eats it, and when she’s full. I don’t insist she finishes her meal, but once dinner is done that’s it for food for the night. I usually ask her to try everything once, but she doesn’t have to eat it if she doesn’t like it. I’m not sure if that is at all helpful :/

  • Reply Penny April 27, 2015 at 6:06 AM

    Very interesting and useful read. We have a two man approach. We let her put anything she likes in the basket then the other parent sneaks it out and returns it to the shelf when she’s not looking. Not sure how long we’ll be able to get away with this so it’s good to have a plan B.

    • Reply sweetmadeleine April 27, 2015 at 9:59 AM

      Genius! Got to love the short attention spans! I say milk that one as long as you can 😉

  • Reply MaryKate April 27, 2015 at 8:04 AM

    Madeleine, your posts having been making me smile and tear up now for a couple months. You are oh so clever! My little man is only 6 months, but you better believe I’ll be looking up your toddler wisdom in the months ahead!
    Also, you are beautiful on the outside (Hellllooooo beach yoga!) and on the inside too, just thought I’d let you know 😉 I only have to play single parent when my husband goes hunting for the weekend and I know how insane it can get; you are doing a lovely job of raising up your dear daughter, keep up the good work!

    • Reply sweetmadeleine April 27, 2015 at 9:59 AM

      Thank you so much for taking the time to leave such a sweet comment! You made my day.

  • Reply Ashley April 27, 2015 at 9:15 AM

    I always bring a snack for the store. Probably bad because now he always wants a snack at the store, but at this point, I’d rather he sit in the cart eating raisins than pull everything off the shelf. Picking out his clothes has helped a bit with the getting dressed. Also, I recite favorite books while he holds the book and turns pages. Works most of the time. I can’t wait until summer when we are only putting on shorts and a shirt instead of five layers like over winter. Sigh.

    • Reply sweetmadeleine April 27, 2015 at 9:58 AM

      I hear you. The other day I just had to dress Olive in a sundress and I swear the angels sang 😉

  • Reply Anon April 27, 2015 at 7:23 PM

    As a person who has spent 10 years in retail toy stores and dealt with every parent known to man I beg of you not to let your child pick up every product and hold it and walk around with it. Those stuffed animals with the giant eyes will go to another child when your toddler is done with it. Most likely while it wandered around the store with her she licked it, or sucked on it, or dragged it on the ground. If the stock becomes too dirty it is no longer sellable, and on top of that I bet your kid has broken things along her way and hidden them from your eyes. Why do I think this? Because when I see parents choosing to parent in the way you have suggested I follow their toddlers as they move around the store and clean up the chaos as it happens. Toy employees are used to kids losing their minds in a toy store. Let her lose her mind. She needs to learn that not every box needs to be touched and not every piece of plastic needs to be bent. Most toy stores have demo tables for a reason….utilize them.

    • Reply sweetmadeleine April 28, 2015 at 10:39 PM

      That is such fabulous feedback – thank you! I do try ensure that I teach Olive to respect her belongings, those of others, and especially those that will belong to others at some point.

      The toys that she is typically attracted to are stuffed toys, or rubber/plastic figurines that are already unboxed/unbreakable, and if she did ever damage something I would definitely be honest about it and purchase it. This is something great to keep in mind as we move forward, and absolutely, learning not to touch is essential!

      Thank you for providing an alternate perspective 🙂

  • Reply How to Parent From Bed - Sweet Madeleine February 20, 2017 at 5:17 PM

    […] How to Avoid Toy Store Tantrums […]

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