"Just once more, Mom! Pleeeease?" My daughter, Stella, 6, was begging me to let her go down the slide again before we left the playground. By itself, the request was no biggie. But the previous slide was supposed to be her last, and I was tired of negotiating. Plus, I felt like I had spent all day dealing with her requests to push the limits: one more chapter in the Junie B. Jones book, five more minutes at a playdate, another Curious George episode, and a cookie even though she already ate an ice pop.
Would she ever be satisfied? "It may drive you crazy, but it's normal for 5- and 6-year-olds to test limits," says Parents advisor Jenn Berman, Psy.D., author of SuperBaby: 12 Ways to Give Your Child a Head Start in the First 3 Years. "This is when kids become astute at articulating thoughts and negotiating nuances, and they're testing those skills on you."
The good news, Dr. Berman says, is that repeated requests don't mean your child is becoming greedy or selfish. In fact, kids usually outgrow this stage by age 8 or 9. That's little consolation when you're dealing with your child's 100th plea and you're so sick of talking about it that you want to scream. Especially since that's what our child-development experts say not to do. We asked for their best tips on what to try instead.
Make a Deal
Your child is most likely to push the limits that occur on a regular basis, probably when he's having fun or trying to delay something he hates. Use that to your advantage by getting him on board beforehand. So, if your son always asks for one more chapter in his Magic Tree House book at bedtime, while you're eating dinner, decide together how many chapters you'll read. Make him feel invested in the decision by giving him two choices you're okay with -- something like, "Should we read one chapter or two?" Then, even if he asks for one more when you're done, you can say, "You love stories, but remember, you said two chapters at dinner. Maybe tomorrow we can read more," suggests Harvey Karp, M.D., a Parents advisor and creator of The Happiest Toddler on the Block DVD and book.
Put in Your Notice
We all know it's important to give toddlers a lot of early warnings before transitions like leaving a friend's house, but sometimes we forget that older kids need one too. "Even adults need help shifting gears," Dr. Berman says. "If I'm browsing at the bookstore with my husband and all of a sudden he says, 'Okay, let's go. I've had enough,' it's frustrating. I do better if he gives me a ten-minute warning."
Five- and 6-year-olds don't need constant reminders, but warn your child at the halfway point and at least once just before an activity ends. In your reminder, try to anticipate her comeback. So if she usually argues after a game of Candy Land that you have to play one more so she can have a chance to beat you, you could say at the outset, "If I win again, this is still going to be our last game. You can try again next time to beat me."
Feel Their Pain
Even if you make a deal in advance and remind your child of the limit, what should you do if he still pleads for more? Research shows that he'll be more likely to be cooperative -- rather than confrontational -- if you express empathy. For example, before you say no, tell your child you understand his frustration. In other words, when your child spots a toy car and a pack of trading cards and insists, "But I want both of them," your first response should be a calm "I know you do, sweetie."
"Your empathy calms him and helps him get back into a rational, thinking state," says Liann Smith, a parent coach and educator in Seattle. Then you can remind him of the rule, which hopefully you established before you entered the store: "We agreed you could pick out one thing, right?"
Stand Your Ground
Sometimes, no matter how sympathetic you sound, your child won't move on. Maybe it's time to leave a playdate at a friend's house and she starts to whine and beg, coming up with a myriad of reasons she needs more time there. Go ahead and hear out her arguments, Dr. Berman says, and explain your reasoning if necessary. If it becomes clear that she's arguing just for the sake of arguing, put your foot down. That might mean saying, "I'm not going to talk about this anymore" and walking away.
Or try this tip from Hal Runkel, an Atlanta-based therapist and author of ScreamFree Parenting: Say, "No, my decision is final,' over and over again, until your child stops arguing. "It's okay to sound like a broken record," Runkel says. "But don't get angry. If you get angry, she'll focus on your behavior instead of focusing on her own."
Originally published in the January 2011 issue of Parents magazine.