Now that the holidays are in full swing, I for one definitely need a reminder of how to better handle pester power (x3).

‘But I want it, Mummy!’

It’s the cry you dread, especially in public when a refusal to give or buy your child something you can’t afford or disapprove of, leads to a screaming tantrum. The temptation, of course, is to give in. However, if you can bear it, sticking to your guns presents a perfect opportunity to reinforce important and positive messages to your child about boundaries and personal values.

Why does my child do it?

It’s important to recognise that just as we adults live in a world of endless choice, so do children. Advertising to the under-5s is a multi-billion pound global industry. Toddlers may not possess advanced language skills, but a tempting display of sweets at their head height in a supermarket, or colourful TV ad between toddler programmes sends out a powerful early message. One study found that 69% of three-year-olds, for example, can identify the symbol for McDonald’s.

Bar moving your family to a remote Pacific island, however, there is little you can do to remove the constant temptation for a new toy or sugary sweet from your child’s life. You can, however, use each situation to reinforce the following positive messages:


Pushing boundaries – in this case, pestering – is a way for young children to assert independence.   But by making it clear what is allowed in your family, and refusing to budge, you remind your child who’s in charge.

This is crucial, says Dr Nadja Reissland, a developmental psychologist from Durham University.

“When we set boundaries we signal that we, the adult, are taking responsibility, which makes the child feel safe,’ she explains. ‘If we then move the goal post at their request, the child feels they are responsible, not the adult. The child doesn’t know which boundary to work towards any more and can feel unsafe.”

Family values

A pester power situation is also a perfect opportunity to discuss with your child the importance of opinions and values. ‘Just because I say so’ is not enough for your child to understand the decision.  Try explaining why you would prefer not to waste money on certain items – this allows your child to build up a picture of your family values – and as an adult they will then be able to choose their own values and stick to them.

Respecting other opinions

This discussion can then lead to the idea of respecting other people’s values, which may be different to yours. So while sweets might not be allowed in your house, you may decide to allow your child to eat them at a friend’s house, where they are allowed. This shows your child that it’s possible to negotiate around other people’s views without breaking the rules of your own house. Alternatively, you could ask them to explain to the mother that he or she is not allowed sweets.

We’re all human, however, and it’s natural to give sometimes, whether it’s for a bit of peace and quiet, or just the pleasure of seeing a happy face.

If you find yourself tempted, remember spending quality, creative time with a child can be equally rewarding as spoiling them with gifts. And if that doesn’t work, try the following tips.

  1. Don’t feel guilty for not having a bottomless purse, especially if you want to give your child things you never had, says parenting charity Parentline. Children go through different phases every week. Explain why they can’t have everything they want. At Christmas, ask them to list presents in order of preference with a limit of five.
  2. If your child wants the same toy as their friend, ask them to think of a toy they own which their friends likes. Then suggest they play together with both toys, sharing them. ‘Often children want something they think will earn them a place in a social group,’ says Dr Reissland. ‘Show them they can earn that place by sharing what they already have.’
  3. When you say no, try to show your child you understand their disappointment. Especially if the desired object is something they want to impress their friends. Avoid being flippant about their wants and feelings.
  4. Agree tactics with your partner and stick jointly to a decision.
  5. Make treats what they are – treats. If you know your child will ask for a new toy or a sugary snack when you go shopping, take food and favourite toy in your bag to distract them. They will learn that your purse doesn’t come out for them every time you go shopping.
  6. Don’t say ‘yes’ unless you mean it. If you feel put on the spot, say you will think about it so you can give a final answer rather than break a promise.