Ah, the sounds that can turn a simple outing into a headache-inducing battle: “Can I get this?” “Can I have that?” “But I really waaaaaaaant it!!!”
The incessant asking-for-stuff.
Yeah, I hate it too.
Sure, we grown-ups also crave stuff. We browse the aisles and surf online sales, looking at things we don’t need and being tempted by the ever-present impulse buy. The difference is that we know we can’t let loose on a shopping spree whenever the fancy strikes, and a preschooler doesn’t.
It’s a tough lesson. But a little kid who begs for stuff all the time—and gets it often—can grow into a materialistic, greedy big kid…or teen…or an adult with some serious budget problems! So the preschool years are a great time to teach restraint.
Why so much wanting and whining now?
By ages 3 to 5, kids have the verbal skills to make every desire known, from “I’m hungry” and “I need a hug” to “I want that toy so much my heart will burst without it!” To this, add:
- Naturally impulsive behavior—so they say and do what they think right in the moment
- A yet-to-develop ability to deal with waiting or delayed gratification
- A lack of understanding of the value of money
Parent reactions also shape their behavior. Preschoolers are constantly testing their ability to manipulate the world around them. Getting you to buy something on a whim can be like a more advanced, and more expensive, version of the same game they played as babies and toddlers. You remember that one: One day they accidentally knock over a toy from their stroller. You jump to pick it up. Ooh—a reaction! Then the toy gets dropped on purpose just to see if they can get you to act again. And again. So fun—for a 1-year-old!
In the case of the preschool buy-me-thats, the stakes are bigger. It requires a more complex approach if you want to keep from spoiling your kid or breaking the bank.
Say no—and stick to it! Not always easy. You want to make your kid happy, and maybe she’s asking for something that you wouldn’t mind her having, like a book or a clever toy or a really cute dress. But each extraneous purchase adds up in little minds to reinforce the possibility that everything is up for grabs, every time. Stand firm consistently, no matter what reaction you get. Giving in to persistent nagging just invites more persistent nagging the next time.
Try keeping a wish list going instead. You could jot it down in your phone, but that’s not necessary; it can be more of a mental-note thing. If your kid wants something, simply say, “Let’s add it to your list.” This approach keeps the pressure off now. In a way, you’re “giving” it in fantasy, which sometimes brings its own satisfaction. And a wish list refocuses attention to special occasions when wants may be gifted, like birthdays or Christmas. Over time, kids learn to wait for things they really want.
(Mom-to-mom: The first time I tried this, I was surprised at how well it worked. Years later it still does! While many wanted items get forgotten, those special items that my kids see over and over—and identify as consistent wants—actually turn into great gift ideas.)
Model self-control. When you’re out shopping with your child, try to keep your own impulses under control. Make a show of it: “Wow, I love this sweater. It’s so pretty! But I already have a blue sweater, so I’m going to pass on this one. Maybe I should wear mine tomorrow!”
Kids are watching our every move. When they see us covet something but not buy it, that reinforces the message that there are limits to what we can (or should) buy—and that we should appreciate and make good use of what we already have.
Reward with attention or experiences instead of more stuff. Positive reinforcement is a powerful tool. But when rewards for good behavior or achievements are objects, getting more things becomes the expectation. You might hear “Wasn’t I good? Can I get this?” for every little accomplishment. Kids can even come to expect material rewards for mere cooperation. And bigger achievements will seem to require bigger rewards….
Some alternatives: getting to choose a game to play with you after dinner, extra reading time at bedtime, a trip to the library to pick out some books, or choosing the movie for movie night at home.
Enlist your child to help you shop responsibly. Little kids love having a job to do, so task yours to help you keep track of your shopping list. (This is best for quick trips to the market.) The key: Emphasize that the items on the list are what you really need and plan to get. Then stick to the list. Point to the word your child should cross off as you add each item to your cart. Older kids who are starting to recognize letters, or even read, can try to find the items on a written list themselves: “OK, we got the milk. M-milk. Where’s that on the list?”
If your helper (inevitably) finds something he wants that’s not on the list, don’t get it. Simply say, “We’re only getting things we need today. And it’s not on the list.” If it’s something you’d agree with buying, then just say, “Hmm…it’s not on the list. Not today, but we can add it to the list for next time.”
Talk up the difference between “wants” and “needs.” “You want those balloons because they are colorful and fun to play with. We need chicken and carrots for our dinner.” Ask your child to think up other things that are needs (necessary for survival). Then make up a list of wants (would like to have). Fun activity for older preschoolers: Let them cut pictures out of magazines and catalogs to make a collage of each category.
Give them a chance to shop for others—with a budget. Whether it’s buying for a charity (like Toys for Tots) or shopping for a buddy’s birthday, the experience of picking something out for someone else builds empathy and reduces selfishness. Even though relative prices may be over your child’s head, by talking through the purchase, including whether it’s too expensive, a preschooler learns that you can’t just buy anything. It has to fit a certain purpose and spending limit.
Admittedly, taking a child to shop for a toy for someone else might sound like a parental nightmare. “I think Dylan would like this!” can zip to “I like this! Can you get this for me?” But the challenge is a brilliant opportunity to reinforce your message. Just say something like, “Remember, we’re not shopping for you today.” (And don’t give in!)
Eventually…endearing but not entitled
Okay, maybe it might seem easier to keep our kids out of stores forever and block them from seeing every advertisement ever made. But since that’s neither feasible nor a way to teach anything, we’re left with the longer path: setting limits, teaching how to tell wants from needs, and instilling values that help kids resist the temptation of more, more, more.
With patience and consistency, it will happen. Even if we (or one day, they) could afford everything they can see, avoiding an attitude of entitlement = priceless.
Photo: Gabriela Pinto/Flickr