Sitting at the breakfast bar in my kitchen, desperately trying to pound out a crucial work email, I feel a tiny hand pinch the bit of flesh peeking out between my sweater and waistband. It’s my five-year-old son, Henry. “Mommy,” he says, batting his mile-long eyelashes, “can I play on the iPad?” He’s maxed out his daily screen time, so I say no and ask him to give me a minute.
Five minutes later he’s back. And so it begins. I keep typing, Henry keeps grabbing at me, the intervals between each ask shrinking from five minutes to three, then to 30 seconds. I feel like I’m losing my mind, so eventually, though I know it’s wrong, I blurt, “Yes! You can have the iPad! Now, for the love of Pete, let me finish this email!” He smiles diabolically, ambles off, and starts poking at the tablet.
Badgering, pestering, hounding—whatever you want to call it, kids are good at it.
Whether they’re looking for extra TV time or a cookie just before lunch, kids as young as two have figured out that if they ask enough times or at an inconvenient moment, they can often get what they want—which is exactly why they do it.
Parenting expert Gail Bell of the Calgary company Parenting Power says badgering is a learned behaviour. She says that it’s our job as parents to take control and teach kids that it’s not OK to keep asking after we’ve said “no,” rather than rewarding the very behaviour that’s driving us nuts. It’s also our job to offer alternative things kids can do when we can’t give them our immediate attention.
1. Talk it out
Bell recommends parents sit down with their kids to talk about badgering behaviour, rather than discussing it in the heat of the moment. “Say, ‘Here’s what’s happening in our home, and this is behaviour that we need to work on as a team,’” says Bell, noting you should include specific examples. “You need to take the time to tell them what they can do instead of always just saying ‘no’ in the moment.” Then make a plan that includes logical consequences if your kids ignore a warning.
2. Create a sign
Let your kids know that sometimes you won’t be able to answer them immediately—if you’re in the middle of an important task or phone call, for example. Bell suggests families develop a cue (such as a hand signal) or a code word that lets your child know you’ve heard him and serves as shorthand for “you know we’ve discussed this” (it can be used both when you’re busy and when you’re not). “One word is good,” says Bell. “It may not mean anything to anyone else, but it reminds them of the plan and what the expectations are in that situation.”
3. Follow through
It’s important to be clear that there will be consequences for continued pestering, says Bell. For example, if your child asks for extra screen time after he’s reached his limit for the day, the cue serves as a reminder of the screen-time rules; he’ll know that he will lose the next day’s privileges if he asks a second time. Most importantly, adds Bell, consistently stick to the rules and consequences you set together.
Bell also recommends parents consider whether they’re inadvertently encouraging badgering when they give in to hounding or fail to recognize what’s at the root of it. “We need to find that one-on-one, eye-to-eye, no-electronics time to talk to our kids,” she says. “Often, badgering comes when they just want our attention.”
If you tell your child that you will talk to him in five minutes, after that five minutes (not 10 or 20) has passed, it’s important that you put away your phone or computer and spend some time with him.
Bell also offers a revolutionary suggestion: Say “yes” the first time. Maybe not if your child wants a third cookie or another hour of TV time, but next time your kid interrupts your work to ask to play hide and seek, pause and ask yourself, “Why not?”
Bell suggests putting together a “phone box” with approved activities, such as colouring books or small toys and games, to keep kids occupied until you can give them your attention. Bonus: It will help encourage independent play.