The traffic light challenge is a game that I invented to help keep things positive when we have several errands to run.  And it has worked!

A couple months ago, we had several errands to run.  In the afternoon.  During nap time.  The boys’ behavior had already been quite challenging that day with generous amounts of fighting and extremely high energy.  I knew that I could never survive an outing with multiple stops (all of them boring) when everyone was already in such a bad mood.  But there were some things that we just had to get done!  In desperation, I grabbed some paper and three colored pencils – red, yellow, and green.

“Okay, here’s the deal,” I told them.  “We have to go to Carter’s, JC Penney’s, and Kroger.  You each get one traffic light for each stop, plus one for behavior while we’re riding in the car.”

I quickly drew four traffic lights for each child.

The Traffic Light Challenge:  Keeping it Positive when Running Errands with Kids

“At the end of our outing, we’re going to Sonic for slushes or ice cream.  At each stop, your job is to have appropriate behavior.  I will give you one warning at each stop, if needed.  If you continue to do something that I have asked you not to do, you will move to yellow. If you continue to misbehave after that, you’ll move to red for that stop.  At the end, you will earn a treat at Sonic if you have NO reds, and no more than ONE yellow.  We’re going to Sonic no matter what.  But only the people who have earned it will get a treat!”

The boys are currently 11, 8, 6, and 3.  I adjust my standards for errand-running behavior based on age.  For example, Aidan is 11 and knows what acceptable behavior should look like.  Jonathan is only 3.  I don’t expect him to remember store etiquette (using a quiet voice, not running, not constantly asking to buy things) from trip to trip.  But if I ask him to stop running while we’re in the store, he needs to stop!

On that first outing, the younger two boys lost their chance to have a treat.  I knew that I needed to stick to what I said in order for this to be effective!  The next time, they both earned a reward.


  • Spell out expectations ahead of time.  Be really specific with what you expect.  “We may have to wait in line a long time while we register the car.  You can bring a book to look at, but you may not climb on the chairs or jump off chairs in the waiting area.”
  • Change up the treat.  Sometimes we might pick out a package of popsicles, rent a movie from Red Box, or stop by a play ground.  Just make sure when you choose your treat that you’re willing to enforce people sitting out if they didn’t earn it!
  • Make it their choice.  Don’t get angry or frustrated with bad behavior.  Simply say, “This is your warning.  You know that you should not run in the store.  If you choose to run, you are making the choice to give up your treat.”
  • Save this game for long, boring errands only.  We don’t do a treat every time we have to go somewhere – then it’s not a treat!

One more interesting thing… I did this mainly for my younger kids, but my oldest has commented that it really helps him keep his behavior in check when he has a specific goal.  He is one of those who is tempted to make his own “fun” when things are not interesting enough.  A little accountability really helps!

What do you do to survive errands with kids?  (Besides going without them – I do plenty of that, too!  Sometimes it’s the best way…)


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  1. sarahelisabeth May 27, 2015

    This sounds really useful. I am sure that making expectations clear really helps. Our favourite shop phrase is "You can do all the looking that you want but you must not touch anything."

  2. JJ May 29, 2015

    My boys do so much better when they know exactly where we're going and in what order. We are going to the bank, fabric store, Target, then home. If I need to reroute, I simply say change of plans, Now we are going to the bank, fabric store, Hobby Lobby, then Target, then home. My three year old doesn't keep track of the plan so I just tell him when we get in the car each time where we are going next and if it's close to time to go home. This works so much better for them than not knowing and thinking they will be stuck in town FOREVER! :o)


  3. Holly Jun 3, 2015

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for posting this great idea. I needed to grocery shop with all 5 of my kids (5 months-9 years) yesterday and I tried out your idea. My kids loved it and their behavior during the shopping was very manageable. We were able to end with 5 happy kids and one happy, not stressed out and frustrated mommy. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

    1. Sarah Jun 6, 2015

      That's great! So glad to hear it!


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