Post No.: 0062
If you ever give in to your child’s demands for unhealthy (or less healthful) snacks or drinks or anything else you don’t want them to have, especially after saying, “No” to them a hundred times because they’ve persistently asked a hundred times – then they’ll learn the cause-and-effect pattern of nagging more and more until they get their way! They’ll learn that you’ll eventually cave in with enough nags, whines or begs. From their perspective, nagging gets them results. Nagging works. Moreover, they’ll learn that it takes a lot of nagging, whining or begging to get their way – so that’s what they’ll subsequently give you every time.
It’s like learning that it takes twenty presses of the ‘enter’ key to get a program to function on your computer – once you’ve learnt that this is how to get the outcome you desire from your computer, you’ll start bashing that key twenty times from the outset the next time you want that program to function! It’ll become a learnt and conditioned response. It would’ve been better for the computer keyboard’s sake that it complied with just one key press if the program was going to eventually function anyway – just like it would be less stressful and time-consuming for a parent’s sake if the parent just gives his/her child a sweet after only one request. Or better for the child’s healthy habits and the parent’s longer-term stress levels for the parent to stand firm to the very end.
Hence you must stand firm, follow through with your initial decision and keep consistent if you say, “No”. Children aren’t stupid – they’ll learn and adapt their behaviours to do the things that work to achieve their (short-term) interests. Young children cannot think much further than the short-term or even much further than themselves sometimes – especially under around 5 years of age; but they can already experiment to work out how to get whatever they want from others. (Indeed, a baby is born to innately use emotional methods to persuade caregivers to give them whatever they want e.g. crying. But we generally don’t want to see older children crying to try to get their way.) Once they learn that this nagging strategy won’t work at all then they’ll soon cease to try it again – the behaviour will start to become ‘extinct’ using the terminology in this field. They’ll then try to figure out some other way, such as working for it, or ultimately being more patient.
If a child learns that nagging, whining or begging works at home then they may try this strategy in other places too e.g. in school, which might not win them many friends. So it might be in your child’s own broader interests too for them to learn that such strategies are socially unacceptable and ineffective beyond a point. Whining seldom pays outside of the home, so teach them that it doesn’t pay inside of the home.
You possibly don’t need to put up with any nagging, whining or begging even at the first instance – offer them a choice, but only between a couple of healthy/acceptable options so that your child can exercise his/her choice but within the parameters you’ve set; or give them a little bit of the sugary snack at the first request if you think they genuinely could be hungry and the next set meal time is too long to wait (e.g. after they’ve been out and more active than on a usual day); or if they’re very young then often a simple cheerful distraction works to get their minds off the thing you don’t want them to have or touch. Another strategy is to simply not buy and bring unhealthy snacks into the house, or certainly don’t leave them where they are temptingly visible and easily accessible. Woof!
Setting a counter-demand is a trickier approach. You could explain what it’ll take for them to earn that unhealthy snack or whatever unhealthy thing they want (e.g. by doing some physical activities or chores first) then honouring that agreement if they fulfil their side of the bargain – but unhealthy food treats should not be used as rewards because this conditions children to associate these foods with being the most desirable. Likewise, healthy foods like vegetables should not be used as and associated with punishment. Otherwise when they’re older, they’ll likely continue to associate unhealthy treats as ‘good/desirable’ and vegetables as ‘bad/undesirable’.
It’s highly understandable that stressed-out parents have great intentions for their child’s health but under the stresses of the situation cave in to get themselves a temporary, short-term moment of peace. And a food treat on the odd, random occasion is fine in moderation. But the point here is that, by preparing one’s strategy in advance and being able to take a step back and look at the bigger picture, there are broadly two ways to reduce your overall stress in this context in the long run – to give in to their demands soon so that they don’t end up needing to nag you at all, or, more ideally, to never give in to their nagging no matter how far they push it so that they’ll eventually learn that nagging is ineffective against you to get what they want, and so they’ll nag less and less in the future or even give up on that strategy altogether. The long-term result is that you’ll receive less nagging, whining or begging, and feel a bit less stressed as a parent!
In many contexts (not just in parenting), we can believe that we’ve found a successful strategy because it gives us short-term results, and then it’s just a matter of repeating these short-term results every time (e.g. downing an alcoholic drink or several to drown our sorrows each time, repeatedly caving in to nagging for a bit of peace each time). But if we’re able to take a step back and look at the bigger picture, we’ll be able to find more successful strategies for the long-term and improve our overall net payoff. (It’s a tiny bit like local optima versus global optima in mathematical optimisation problems, in the sense that one may think one has found the absolute highest value of a function via calculus, but hasn’t really.)
As an analogy, it’s the reason why we shouldn’t reward terrorism (e.g. spread front page publicity about their alleged plights) because in the bigger picture terrorists will learn that it works to get them what they want and will therefore do it again and again in the long run! The news is supposed to publish things of public interest and it is a harder dilemma to not pay any ransoms if it could save immediate lives though. But no non-literally-starving-to-death, non-hypo (diabetes) child is going to die if they forgo that sugary snack(!) And their mental health will also overall be in a better state for not nagging or whining so much because nagging and whining are actually quite stressful acts for a child too.
All this works best if a child hasn’t already been conditioned to nag, whine or beg. If they already have been then it’s going to take a lot of time, effort and toughness (and maybe earplugs!) to recondition a child to learn that such strategies won’t work anymore. But it’ll still be worth it in the long run for all involved.
But sometimes when children nag their parents, it’s for a good cause e.g. anti-smoking and seatbelt campaigns in the past have worked relatively well because, whilst adults may not be as motivated to change their behaviours for their own sakes, they may be more motivated for the sake of their children. So in these contexts, using children to guilt and nag parents into better long-term behaviours could be a good strategy.
Woof. Now if you believe your child has a clinically diagnosable behavioural disorder then please consult a paediatrician.