The most effective way to curb Pester Power

Like many parents, I have battled (often unsuccessfully) with my children’s pester power – especially for junk food and toys. I’m not sure if there is a correlation between children receiving pocket money and pester power, but it would sure make for an interesting study! Like many parents, I have Googled strategies to deal with this situation. They all come back to one simple message – ignore the pester and stay calm. Yeah right! Don’t get me wrong – the message is very wise and very true – BUT it’s easier said than done!

What is helpful though, is understanding WHY the children pester. Children are not to be blamed for being tempted. Advertisers spend billions of dollars marketing to children. Watch this YouTube video and you’d be astounded.

More children were able to recognise Colonel Sanders from KFC than Barak Obama!

Children between the ages of 4 and 8 years of age don’t recognise that ads are paid commercials intended to convince them to buy something. When we realise it’s not the children’s fault, it becomes easier. It’s no longer a battle between parent and child. It’s now a battle between parent and child on one side and marketing on the other side.

When conventional methods don’t work!

While pestering can wear a parent down, asking for things in itself is not a bad thing.

Asking for things isn’t always pestering. And the way you respond to children’s requests teaches them important lessons about how to influence, negotiate and communicate. ~ Raising Children Network

In this post, I explore common ways parents deal with pester power. I have tried all of them and none have been effective. I will share with you a method that I have used successfully with my own persistent children. It doesn’t involve them feeling deprived, it doesn’t involve tough negotiations and it doesn’t involve tantrums.

Conventional method #1: Just say “No!”

Of course, we can easily say “No” to their pestering, but after a while “No” just doesn’t have the same effect and will inevitably be followed by “Why?” and then tantrums. Yes, it’s easy to say Just suck it up and move on! They are kids. Be consistent and they will get it the next time. No means No! Yeah, right. Easier said than done. It probably works for some parents, but it sure won’t work on strong-willed children – and we don’t necessarily want to break down their strong-willed nature.

Conventional method #2: Did you bring your money?

“Did you bring your money? No? Well, then you can’t buy it”. At first, children might resign to the logic that if they didn’t bring their money, they don’t buy. But if you have strong-willed and creative children, they will invariably find ways to extract money from you. “Can I borrow some money to buy? I’ll pay you back. I’ve got the money saved up.” If you give your children pocket money this will definitely come up as a line of reasoning.

Again, we can simply stick with “No.” But then the pleading would start, “Please?” “Pleeeease?” “Why can’t you just lend me some money? I can pay you back.”

We could lend them the money and then follow through with asking them to pay back. But more often than not, we don’t actually want them to buy the item.

Why not? Well, because:

  1. It’s usually junk – there are only so many stuffed toys that can fit into the cupboard, especially when storage space is premium!
  2. It’s often junk food – we don’t want them consuming that stuff more than they need to especially when it means they don’t eat their lunch or dinner later.
  3. ‘Their money’ is actually our money –  who gave them money? (yes, they worked for it, but the parents still had to go out and earn that money first, in order to pay them). We don’t want to see ‘our’ hard-earned money being wasted.

So this method won’t work all the time.

Conventional method #3: How can we afford it?

I first came across this phrase when I read Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad, Poor Dad. In that book, he wrote about asking the kids “How can we afford it?” instead of flat out saying “No, we can’t do it because we can’t afford it”.

To me, it sounded like a great idea at that time. I mean, I don’t want to say “No” to my kids all the time. So I tried this method. It turned out to be a conversation nightmare. Strong-willed and creative children will again inevitably bombard us with lots of ways of HOW they can afford it. Suggestions like –

  • just take the money from the machine – involves explaining where the money from the ATM really came from
  • we can borrow from the bank – involves explaining the need to pay back the bank plus interest (and then the explanation about interest)
  • you’ve got a lot of money – involves explaining that actually no, I don’t have a lot of money because what I earn goes towards paying for other things like electricity, gas, telephone, groceries, petrol (fuel), etc.
  • I’ve got a lot of money in my money box – um….no, you don’t actually.

Again, a good training ground for them finding solutions and trying out their debating skills. But again if we simply just want to get through the shopping without having to explain away every single solution, “How can we afford it” becomes a bit tedious.

Seriously, how often can a parent actually have the “How can we afford it” conversation with a young child (I’m talking 6- to 8-year-olds). They ask for everything …. and I mean – every. little. thing. Can we have some juice? Can we buy some chocolates? I like these chips – can we buy them? Can we get that cereal?

I don’t want to answer any of these questions with “How can we afford it” because I actually don’t want to buy any of them!

Dealing with pester power vs Curbing pester power

In any event, all of the above are strategies for dealing with pester power. They aren’t exactly strategies for stopping the pester power. What I really want is a way to actually stop the question from being asked in the first place:

  • I don’t want to have to say “No” constantly
  • I don’t want to enter into any negotiations over “Why?” or “Why not?”
  • I don’t want to engage in any further discussions about how they will buy it
  • I simply don’t want a battleground to start at all!

So how did I CURB the pester power?

The Background: Money Goals

In my post Why children should always have a money goal to work towards I talked about the importance of children always having a money goal to save towards.

The origins of my children’s money goals started at one of our family outings. I had saved up my money to pay for the family’s entry tickets at the amusement park. But when we arrived, I was dismayed at seeing my children spend their hard earned money or pocket money on junk food or over-priced plastic toys.

So I thought it would make sense for my children to save up for their own entry tickets and the money I would have spent on their entry tickets can go towards spending inside the amusement park itself. I would then have control over what ‘junk’ the children are allowed to buy. Brilliant strategy!

Will the children agree to this?

But would my children agree to pay for their own entry tickets? I mean, wouldn’t they prefer to spend their money buying ice creams, popcorn, chips, etc? In any event, isn’t asking them to pay for their own entry tickets a bit … mean? Well, there’s only one way to find out. Try it.

Surprisingly, my children didn’t protest. In fact, they seemed to thrive on the idea of achieving their goals (visual aids and constant reminders help too). My 6-year-old thought it was fun to be able to finally put his money towards something useful. My 10-year old didn’t much like the idea, but she didn’t have any choice because I have the same rule for each child. Over time, she has embraced this idea and actually likes saving up for her share of the family activities. She is certainly the only one among many of her friends to know the value of things at the age of 10 years old.

In time, she has told me that the journey of saving up towards a goal was more exciting than achieving the goal itself. This exercise has validated my belief in the importance of teaching children good money habits from a young age. The older they get, the more difficult it is to implement ideas that society sees as abnormal.

The Money Goal (failure story)

Armed with saving goals and the children’s enthusiasm to pay for their own entry tickets, I decided to curb my 16-year-old’s pester power for hot chips by doing the same exercise for our next family outing. A camping trip.

I asked the children what activities they would like to do while we camped – they have a choice of horse riding, pony ride, etc. The children picked their activities and I added up the individual costs – cost of campsite* + cost of activities. I wrote down the total cost for each child on a whiteboard. This is their goal for the next few months. Their progress is also written down, so they have a visual aid to keep them motivated. Nothing fancy, just something they can see:

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Camping trip goal.

* I wouldn’t normally ask my children to pay for the accommodation part of our holiday, but seeing the campsite itself is quite cheap, I included it so that the children have to save up more. I anticipated protest (especially from my eldest) but they didn’t so I left it in.

While they were saving …

While they were all saving up for their camping goal, I dealt with their pester power by asking “Did you bring your money?” If they asked to borrow money, I explained to them that they will have less to save towards their goal. If they forget to pay me back, I will have to charge interest. This means they will have to pay back more than they borrowed. If they took too long to reach their goal, camping season may be over.

This is usually enough motivation for them to stop pestering about borrowing money.

Success in dealing, failure in curbing

But this is not really curbing the pester power. It is simply dealing with the pestering. In any event, this method didn’t last long because my youngest child easily reached his savings goal:

  1. Because of his age, he can’t actually do many of the more expensive things (eg. go on proper tail rides) so he had less to save up for.
  2. He is the only one getting any pocket money (if you’re wondering why he’s the only one, read about it here).

Even though he’s only six years old, he’s the most persistent and has the strongest pester power … and his timing is always impeccable. He has the knack of pestering when another adult (not his parent) is paying attention to what he’s saying. So he frequently gets what he asks for because the other adult (usually grandma) ends up buying it for him, to the disapproval of his parents. He also has a knack for logically convincing the other adult that it really is quite cheap to buy what he wanted because the alternative is so much more expensive.

A typical conversation with my youngest child

Here’s an example of a typical conversation he has (after a swimming lesson):

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Him: Mummy, can we buy some hot chips?

Me: No, hun.

Him: Why not?

Me: Because we had it last week.

Him: Can I have a cookie then?

Me: I suppose that’s a bit different.

Him: But that’s $4.50 and I only get one cookie. But the hot chips is only $3.50 and I get a whole bucket so it’s cheaper to buy hot chips (yeah, he knows his money value!).

Me: [Silence – How on Earth did he just do that?!?]

I’m not sure how it happens, but this conversation typically takes place in the presence of another adult, so I often give in out of embarrassment (I know I shouldn’t be embarrassed, but these types of conversation happen quite often and frequently with the same other adults around).

The Money Goal tweaked (success!)

There is a good ending to this VERY LONG POST. I did curb his pester power. How? By asking him to help me. If there is one thing I have noticed, it’s the willingness of young children to help others, especially their parents.

To tap into his generosity, I asked my son to help me save up for the camping trip. I told him it wouldn’t be fair to have one rule for the kids and another rule for the adults (I’m sure this will come back and bite me in the future). If the children had to save up for their camping trip, then it wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t also save up for myself.

So I made a deal with him. I told him that each time he didn’t ask for hot chips after his weekly swimming lessons, I’d add $3.50 to my goal. I did this for all the habitual requests he used to make – hot chips after swimming; chicken nuggets at the basketball stadium; icy pole after his games, etc.

The proof

The following week, I had forgotten the deal I made with him. So after his swimming lesson, I waited in anticipation for his usual “Mummy, can we buy hot chips?” Nothing. Not a single word about buying hot chips. I thought it was strange that he didn’t ask (remember I had forgotten our deal). So before we left the aquatic centre, I asked,“Do you want to get some hot chips for the car ride home?” He replied, “No mummy.”

Me: Are you sure?

Him: Yes, I want you to come with me. 

Me: Okay, I’ll come with you to order the chips. 

Him: No, I don’t want hot chips. I want you to come with me. 

Me: (Puzzled) Okay, I’ll come with you to get some hot chips. 

Him: No, I want you to come with me. 

By now I was getting a bit frustrated at this nonsensical exchange. So I changed tact.

Me: Where do you want me to go with you?

Him: To camping!

Me: (the light bulb suddenly went on) Oh! Okay. Thanks for reminding me. Let’s just go home for dinner.

Happily ever after?

I have told this story to a few people. Some thought my idea was brilliant. But there were a few who see it as draconian of me to deprive my son of hot chips with the thought that if he treated himself, he couldn’t go camping with me and feel somewhat abandoned. My son knows I would never abandon him. I know that he feels enough love to know that when I teach him about prioritising his purchases in this way, I am not doing any damage to his well being.

I’m happy to say that for as long as I was still saving up for that camping trip, he hadn’t pestered for his usual request for junk food. In fact, there had been times when he’d reminded me not to buy my cup of coffee because I’m trying to save up for the camping trip. What a way to turn pester power into keeping me in check!

Pester Power curbed by camping trip
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The secret …

The secret to this success is not in understanding why children pester. It’s not in the money goal or asking my children to help me save. The success is in having a plan. Not having a plan for how we will teach our children about money is one of the most common mistakes parents make. Find out what other common mistakes parents make in Top 5 mistakes parents make when teaching their children about money.