01/22/2013 01:00 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2013

What I Realized From Shopping With My Son and Daughter

My family spent the winter holidays visiting relatives in England, and as a treat my daughter and I took the train to Paris, where we spent three days wandering the streets and reveling in the beauty of the city. We had a wonderful time, marred only by a minor incident in a store where she spent an hour trying on clothes. And since Paris was waiting outside, I admit to being less than thrilled to be sitting there in a store that seemed no different than those at home. I am not someone who is excited by clothes and accessories, as she is, but for the sake of family harmony I pretended to be happy while she blissfully shopped.

Upon coming home, however, I realized that the only thing worse than shopping with someone who loves to shop is shopping with someone who shares my antipathy. Before he left for college last week, my 20-year-old son had a short list of things he needed to buy for school: a pair of shoes, a pair of pants and a backpack. His father and I usually do his shopping for him, but as he is now practically a grown up it seemed not unrealistic to expect him to participate. He spent most of the past two weeks on the couch -- resting -- so we weren't able to go shopping until the day before he left. I took the day off work, and was ready to roll by 9:00. At 2:00 p.m., I first heard him stir. I would like to give myself a pat on the back for still being calm and cheerful when we finally headed to the mall at 3:00. To minimize our time in stores, we decided that we would start at Macy's, which would be most likely to have all three items. We optimistically planned to be home by 5:00.

After five minutes in the store, I realized why the men's department is always on the first floor of department stores: men will not go out of their way to find what they are looking for. The shoe department was at the far end of the floor, and it was actually a struggle for me to convince my athletic son to walk all that way. We passed several sections selling pants, but decided it would be easier to tackle the shoes first. I thought it would be simple, as he wanted to replace the exact same shoes that he had just thrown away: Sperry top-siders. Unfortunately, they didn't have his size. The nice salesman tried to explain how we could order them and have them mailed, but that seemed like far too much work. And having already walked past the pants, neither of us were motivated to retrace our steps, so we left. We were not off to a great start.

On to Gap. He looked at one pair of pants, pronounced them "too thin and the wrong shade of khaki," and we were out of there in two minutes. This was repeated in the next three stores we went into. He refused to ask for help, and looking through piles of pants on tables for the correct size was torture. Neither of us were helped by the labels: "1869," " full fit," "straight leg" or, my personal favorite, "Warren." In J. Crew he went as far as to try on a pair, but these too were rejected for being too fancy. Mind you, he was looking for the most basic item of clothing in the world: khaki chinos. I finally asked him what exactly he was looking for, and it turned out that when he said he wanted to same pair he already had, he meant the exact same pair, last season's style, and just as worn and comfy. I explained to him -- still somewhat patiently -- that stores change their merchandise and the likelihood of us finding the exact same pair of pants, with the same comfy worn bits, was impossible and he would have to be a bit adaptable. With that understanding he allowed me to coax him into the Banana Republic. They had a wall of khaki pants, clearly labeled and sized. They know how to make it easy for non-shoppers to shop. So thank you, Banana Republic! One hour in -- only one meltdown and only one item checked off the list.

He was now ready to forget the shoes and backpack. Since he had thrown his shoes away as they were worn to bits, I knew he needed to find another pair. I explained that the same principle held for shoes, and that he was unlikely to be able to find a pair that precisely resembled the ones he purchased in 2007. With that understanding, we went to Nordstrom, saw a pair similar to his old ones, briefly toyed with going for a different color and then came to our senses. The shoes were purchased and we were out of there in five minutes, interrupting the nice salesman as he did his spiel in our haste to flee.

As for the backpack, both of us were exhausted and hungry at this point. (Why does shopping make you hungry? How many calories does trudging around actually burn?) We made two half-hearted attempts to look, found nothing, and when he told me that the large hole in this backpack wouldn't be a problem, I allowed myself to be convinced, even though he had just lost his keys through that very hole. We can always replace a set of keys, but there was no way either of us was capable of spending another minute in a store. But at least he wasn't asking me to pretend to be enjoying myself.