On the one hand, Seattle mom Schanon Ataee is glad that her 4-year-old clearly articulates how he feels: “I’m so parched! I’m so thirsty! My mouth is so dry!” The problem? Four-year-old Keyon declares this in a whiny voice — several times a day — to get his favorite chocolate milk. Not regular milk; not water or juice. Chocolate milk — with just the right amount of chocolate.
“He wears me down,” admits Ataee. “If it’s morning and we haven’t slept well or if I’ve just come home from work, I’m tired — and then I’m weak.”
Shalphen Wang of Lake Tapps is good about saying no to her 4-year-old daughter Leah’s pleas for gum or candy — except when they are out with friends. “Then I give a bit and sure enough, she gets it,” Wang says.
Many parents will lose the battle of the “gimmes,” simply because we conserve our precious energy by sometimes letting children win. Really, a determined preschooler can wear a parent down with the all subtlety of a Hummer. What to do?
Hold your ground
Parenting expert and author Elizabeth Pantley writes that little whiners have it figured out early: Whining is a great way to get our undivided attention. In her book Perfect Parenting — The Dictionary of 1,000 Parenting Tips, Pantley urges parents to never, ever give in to whining, nagging or pressure. “Make an announcement: ‘When you use your normal voice, I will listen to you.’” Pantley advises parents to not engage with the child — even to discuss the matter — because it will only increase the whining.
Family therapist Pamela K. Smith takes a slightly different approach, believing parents need to be careful not to dictate. “Work as a team,” Smith advises. “Not an ‘I’m over here, you’re over there’ kind of approach. In Smith’s view, parents can be strong and also be a partner with their child. Anything else will perpetuate the power struggle.
But how does this work when your child is pathologically attached to the chocolate milk (or red race cars or fill-in-the-blank)? With Smith’s approach, a parent will use phrases like “I hear that you are thirsty, so let’s go together to find something in the fridge that is better for you.”
When asked what a parent should do if that worsens the tantrum, she concedes the child may need to be removed from that situation for some alone time until they can get themselves under control.
Remove the temptation
Kat Stremlau, owner of the Tot Spot Café in Woodinville, noticed that the pastry case by her cash register was creating problems. “The moms would be standing there, just holding their kids, and all of a sudden the kids would see the cookies and go into meltdown if they couldn’t have one.”
So Stremlau, the mother of a 3-year-old as well as an astute businesswoman, got rid of the pastry case. While the café still has cookies and pastries on the menu, their new location reduces conflict.
The same approach can be taken at home. If your child routinely stands in the food pantry demanding bag after bag of fruit chews, don’t buy them. Similar to dieting strategies, if the problem food is not there to tempt you, you have taken a big step toward beating the craving.
Even for preschoolers and families who avoid mainstream commercialism, the temptations are everywhere. In her book, I Want It Now: Navigating Childhood in a Materialistic World, Donna Bee-Gates warns of any and all media exposure, even to media purporting to be educational. “Many children’s websites continue the disturbing trend of pairing education and commerce — the joy of learning with the intoxicating narcotic of consumption,” Bee-Gates writes.
But given that it is human nature to want a little something now and then, parents might try using that urge to manage bad behavior; take the lemons and make lemonade. Daniela Tarta of Sammamish had cut out almost any kind of shopping with her 5-year-old son. He was unbearable, she says, wanting anything and everything he saw on store shelves.
But, practically speaking, Tarta found she could not accomplish all of her shopping without Christian in tow. So she came up with positive incentives. Because he loves books, Tarta devised a system where her son earns a check mark on a handmade cardboard chart for every five minutes he reads. When he reaches 30 marks, Christian gets to pick out a toy or a treat. “Now I can take him shopping, because he knows how many check marks he’s at, and we can talk about it, saying, ‘When you get a few more, then you can think about getting this or that.’”
Your preschooler’s “must haves” may make you fear what’s in store for the teenage years. All the more reason, say experts, to take charge now. “There are many times when your children will be unhappy with your decisions,” says Pantley. “Usually, this means you’ve made the right decision!”
Hilary Benson is a Seattle-area writer and mother of three.