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Surviving the search for souvenirs Shopping: Families need to accommodate the needs of those for whom buying mementos is the point of the trip and those who would rather stay out of stores.


It was a hot summer day, and we could have been out sailing or fishing or snoozing on the beach. Instead, we were on the Great T-Shirt Hunt, elbow to elbow with too many other harried tourists looking for the perfect souvenir in Provincetown, Mass., at the northern tip of Cape Cod.

Shopping with kids can be stressful in the best of circumstances. Yet shopping is as much a part of the family vacation as goofy home videos and complaints about too-long car rides.

Some shopping centers have become hot family tourist destinations in themselves. L.L. Bean, for instance, with an indoor fish pond and 3.5 million visitors a year, is one of Maine's top tourist draws.

Shopping impresario Suzy Gershman has made a career out of helping people to shop-till-they-drop on vacation, writing 10 Frommers' "Born to Shop" ($14.95) guides to London, Paris and, this month, Italy.

Her tip: Encourage the children to wait until they find something they really want.

"Kids get the idea that a trip is a license to spend," said Gershman. "Teach them to ask themselves first if they've chosen something that will translate to their real life. Are they getting ripped off? Would they rather spend the money when they get home?"

Lightly suggest the kids stay away from "TTs" (tourist traps) and make sure they know that the place they are visiting is famous for its chocolates or blown glass or up-to-the-minute fashions.

"But as a parent, you've got to agree to let go of the designated amount of money and not interfere with the child's choice. That's part of the experience," Gershman says.

Don't forget, she adds, "The souvenir has to have an emotional connection to the place or you've wasted your money."

For a 6-year-old, that might be a broken shell found on the beach, while a teen opts for the latest CD of the group he's listened to most on the trip. A preschooler will be satisfied with a new $2.99 plastic figure you present at bedtime.

With older children, seek out flea markets or neighborhood stores where local families shop. Jane Marcus was pleasantly surprised on a trip from California to Washington state when her son and daughter enjoyed poking around funky antiques stores.

"They definitely liked the thrill of the hunt," reported Marcus. "It's something we can do wherever we go."

Assuming her husband finds something else to do. He hates to shop.

That's a common predicament for many families on vacation; bitter arguments can erupt between the can't-quit-yet shoppers who think the ultimate "find" is just down the street and those, like my husband and son, who are convinced that five vacation minutes spent in any store is too long.

"Focus on the goal of the trip -- having fun together. The emphasis on a family vacation should be on where interests converge, not diverge," suggests UCLA child psychologist Jill Waterman. She faces the shopping issue herself: One of her twin sons loves browsing, while the other would opt to do anything but shop.

Her solution: Set a time limit for shopping, and give both children the same amount of money to spend. Whether it gets spent on vacation doesn't matter, Waterman says. "At least the child who doesn't like to shop feels his needs are taken into account, too."

She adds that when there's no other option than to bring the kids along shopping while Mom and Dad try to buy something for themselves, it helps to bring something for the nonshoppers to do.

Choose a time, however brief, when the kids are likely to be cooperative. Not, for example, just before lunch when they're starved. Keep the shopping time brief and then reward the kids by doing something they've chosen.

But that likely won't work with young children, who simply aren't equipped to wait for anything. That's especially true if they're tired, hungry or wet. In that case, avoid all stores, no matter how tempting the bargains.

Pub Date: 2/16/97

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