When my three youngest kids were little--like all aged three or four and under--I gave them unlimited cookies at the grocery store. We were deep into military ministry and I would go shopping once per week for several hours in order to buy food for our family and ministry activities. I often had to push one cart and pull the other and wrangle three children for hours on end. I would hit up the BX (like Target in the civilian world) and the neighboring Commissary (grocery store) every Wednesday for the majority of the day.
We had to make this trip weekly and I wanted all of us to love it, not hate it. My strategy was cookies. Not just for them, but for me too.
They had their favorites and so did I. There were a few places around the store where we would simply swipe an item off the shelf, open it up, and down its contents before ever making it to the checkout line. The checker would scan the wrapper and throw it away while my kids sat happily rubbing their bellies.
This strategy not only allowed me to get the job done, but it also allowed me to rehearse the Gospel to my kids over and over that day. Here’s how it went:
Them: “Mommy, can we puuhleeeasssse have dried mango (oreos, juice boxes, etc) again today?”
Me: “Sure! Let’s get some.”
Them (almost every week even though they knew the answer): “Do we have to be good to get them?”
Me: “Nope. You can have them no matter what. I want to bless you! God gives us good gifts no matter what, doesn’t He? We don’t earn His love, do we? He just loves us because He’s good, right? Well, I want you to be reminded of that and learn early that God is a giver of good things and you cannot earn His blessings. Let this remind you of God’s love--it’s freely given!”
Them (chewing mangoes, cookies, whatever): “Thanks, Mommy.
Behaviorism is easy and automatic. Our humanness wants to earn the love we’re given--even my teeny toddlers felt like my grace-based approach was a bit off. We don’t feel right receiving something that we didn’t work for. But that’s the Gospel. That’s Jesus’ love--it cannot be earned, it cannot be worked for--He GIVES it. That’s it.
My kids still enjoy running errands with me. I still often give them an “errand treat,” as they call them. It’s an easy way to illustrate God’s love for them. It’s a tangible reminder early in their lives that God is a generous giver no matter how they behave.