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Children ask for things all the time. The way you respond teaches your child about communicating effectively, being polite and compromising.

Boy looking anxious
 

Responding to requests

Try the following steps when your child asks for things, regardless of whether you plan to say ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘maybe’.

1. Base your first response on how your child asks
If your child asks politely, praise your child for using good manners. This sends the message that you’ll always pay attention when your child uses good manners – even if you don’t always say ‘yes’. This kind of response is more likely to produce good manners in the future.

If your child pesters, whines, demands or threatens, let your child know you need to hear some good manners. For example, you could say, ‘Sascha, stop whining. Use your nice voice’ or ‘Can you ask me in a nicer way?’

2. Listen
If your child has asked politely, take a moment to understand what your child is asking for. Show that you’ve heard and understood – that way, your child will be much more likely to accept your answer. It can also be helpful to show some empathy. For example, ‘Oh, I can see why you would love that. How cool’. 

3. Pause and decide
Beware of the ‘no’ reflex. Pausing even briefly gives you a chance to think about the request, and it can take the pressure off you. It also sends your child the message that you’re putting some thought into it. Ask yourself, ‘Do I need to say no, or can I say yes? If it’s not a yes, can I negotiate?’ It might be a situation where it’s best not to decide yourself, but to negotiate with your child about what’s best for everyone.

Often, you will be able to say yes. At other times, you might be able to negotiate with your child and come up with a solution you can both accept. Either way, consistent and fair responses from you will help your child learn how to ask for things positively and effectively.

Saying ‘no’

Saying ‘no’ is often difficult – after all, you want to make your child happy. But sometimes children can’t have what they want. Here’s how to make ‘no’ a more positive experience:

  1. Give your reason first. If you’ve decided to say no, give your reasons first. This will help your child understand your decision. For example, ‘We don’t have time for a ride on the merry-go-round now. We’ll do it next time’. If children are feeling disappointed by the ‘no’, they might not take in the reason behind it.
  2. ‘No’ means ‘no’, not maybe . If you say ‘no’ then give in, children are likely to pester even harder next time, hoping to get lucky again.
  3. Offer an alternative. If you can, offer an alternative. For example, ‘I can’t buy you this because it’s too expensive. But we could go home and make our own chocolate cake’.
  4. Stick to your guns . If you change your mind, your child will learn that your ‘no’ isn’t final and that it’s worth arguing with you. In particular, don’t give in because your child is behaving badly.
  5. Give your child constructive feedback. If your child accepts ‘no’ for an answer, give lots of praise. For example, ‘I really liked the way you just said “OK” when I said no’. Or ‘It was great how we worked that out together’. If necessary, you can give your child a reminder about how to do better next time. For example, ‘Brendan, next time please remember to ask only once’.
Being able to take ‘no’ for an answer is an important social and emotional skill. Children have to learn how to handle disappointment. Saying ‘no’ to children is also a way of showing them when and how to be assertive.

Reducing the need to say ‘no’

One of the best ways to help your children learn how to cope with being told ‘no’ is not to say it too much. When ‘no’ is reserved for decisions that really matter, children will take it more seriously. 

Here are some ideas for reducing the number of times you say ‘no’:

  • Set some ground rules. For example, before you go shopping, talk to your child about why you’re going. Let your child know what you expect and the rules about asking for things. This can cut down on the number of times you’ll need to say ‘no’. For example, ‘You can choose two show bags only’, or ‘No asking on this shopping trip’.
  • P ause and think about your answer when your child asks for something. You don’t need to respond straight away. Beware of the no reflex. 
  • Say yes. If you can and there’s no harm to it, why not?
  • Negotiate instead of saying no. Think of your answer as a ‘maybe’ that could be turned into a ‘yes’ – but only if your child is willing to negotiate and compromise. For example, ‘I’ll put in half the cost if you pay the other half out of your pocket money’, or ‘We can’t go to the park today but we can go tomorrow’. It might also help to think about what happens and how it feels when grown-ups ask children for things, and how children learn to negotiate those requests.

Spotting a request

Often children just ask for what they want. But when they really want to get their way, they might use a whole range of tactics. You’ll be better prepared to respond when you can spot what your child is trying to do.

How they might ask How it works
If you don’t ... I will ... ! 
This approach uses threats to persuade you.
Grandma said ...  Your child tries to convince you by claiming someone else has already agreed.
I’ll make my bed every morning ... You’re promised something in return.
We all want ...  Children work as a team to convince you.
You’re the best mum ...  You’re flattered or ‘buttered up’ to make sure you’re in a good mood when you hear the request.
But it makes sense ...  This is an attempt to use logic to convince you.
If you really love me ... Your child uses emotional blackmail to influence your decision. 
What do you think?  Your child turns the request into a question.

How age and development affects children’s requests

Children’s ability to make requests and use influence generally improves as they get older. This means parents are more likely to respond positively to requests from older children.

Very young children use basic strategies such as making noises and pointing. They’re more likely to complain or have a tantrum when they don’t get what they want. Parents are more likely to say ‘no’ and stick to their guns with younger children. 

By the time children reach primary school they’re getting the hang of negotiating and compromising. They’re starting to understand your perspective. This means they’re getting better at coming up with arguments that might convince you. Some researchers have found that influencing skills improve dramatically around the time children turn eight. 

Children learn to predict what their parents are more likely to say ‘yes’ to based on past experience. It means they get more persuasive, and also means you need to pay attention and be consistent about what you say ‘yes’ to. 
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  • Last Updated 15-03-2011
  • Last Reviewed 14-03-2011
  • Clark, R.A., & Delia, J.G. (1976). The development of functional persuasive skills in childhood and early adolescence. Child Development, 47, 1008-1014.

    Roedder-John, D. (1999). Consumer socialisation of children: A retrospective look at twenty-five years of research. Journal of Consumer Research, 26, 183-213.

    Yukl, G., & Falbe, C.M. (1990). Influence tactics and objectives in upward, downward and lateral influence attempts. Journal of Applied Psychology, 75(2), 132-140.