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Pester power is real, but less effective than you may think

By Annabel Mansfield 2 min read

Research suggests that kids will nag parents to buy them something every four minutes.

The constant asking, niggling and whining . . . we've all been there before. It starts with a small ask and, if we're "lucky", will rise to a full-blown tantrum (often in the middle of the supermarket aisle or the shopping centre food court). And if we've never had the privilege of securing front-row seats to our child's very public meltdown, we've probably witnessed some other poor mum going through it.

With the shops already primed for Christmas, parents are no doubt experiencing pestering behaviours already. But according to research from the University of South Australia, Aussie parents are faring very well, with just over half of all shopping trips occurring without any challenging behaviours from children, and when requests do occur, less than 20 per cent of parents cave in.

Lead researcher, UniSA’s Dr Bill Page, says the finding is a positive sign for parents heading into the holiday season. “Christmas is a time where families spend lots of time together, which often means the kids need to accompany parents on the weekly shopping trip,” Dr Bill says. “Parents often cringe at this thought, especially if they’ve had to endure a child’s tantrum at the shops in the past.

“Yet, despite the narrative about parents feeling relatively powerless in the face of children’s nagging, our research shows otherwise, with most parents holding their ground when it comes to pester-power.

“We found that while 80 per cent of children asked for something—and did so every four or so minutes—parents denied an overwhelming 76 per cent of requests, showing that children’s pestering is perhaps not as powerful as is often thought.”

Documenting behaviours of children aged under 14 years in a supermarket setting—a context where pestering is likely to be at its strongest—children’s behaviours were recorded via spy-camera sunglasses, or lanyard audio devices, and supplemented by survey data.

1839 requests over 89 shopping trips were recorded, with challenging behaviours recorded via the Eyberg Child Behaviour Inventory.

“Being able to negate difficult behaviours such as pestering is all part of a parent’s job, and to be fair, also a part of a child’s development as they learn to express themselves and practise communication and negotiation skills,” Dr Bill says.

There are a number of things parents can do to make shopping with children less painful:

Give them a task

Kids love having a job to do. If you can devise a useful task, such as pushing the trolley or ticking items off a list, they’ll feel more involved and interested. 

Visit the free fruit station

Supermarkets don’t give out free fruit to kids because they’re good people, but because they want to build a fresh food image and want you to stay in store longer. A healthy snack might give you the time to complete the shop with minimal fussing.

Take things to distract

Difficult behaviour often arises when kids are hungry or tired. If you have a book, toy or something to eat on hand, you might be able to stretch their patience until the shop is done.

Just say no

You probably already do this, but delaying or distracting tactics can help. Remember you are in charge, not the kids.

Don’t be afraid to cut a trip short

If it’s all going pear-shaped (see what we did there?), sometimes it’s best to just cut and run. Go home, have a cup of tea and try again another time.

Annabel Mansfield is the media and communications coordinator for the University of South Australia.