How to Deal with the "Gimmes"

Kids are famous for being greedy, but you need to teach your child that she can't always get what she wants.

Velma Black's 4-year-old daughter, Simone, has no problem asking for what she wants. The trouble is, Simone always wants something, from candy bars to coloring books. "Any time she sees a commercial, she asks for whatever's advertised," says Black, who's from Woodridge, Illinois.

Does your kid have a case of the gimmes too? If she's got tons of toys but still wants more, the answer is yes. Ditto if she badgers you for stuff long after you've said no, or demands things because her friends have them. (And double ditto if "let's get a new one" is her refrain whenever she breaks something.) Greed isn't good—but it is common among 4- and 5-year-olds. Here's how to teach your child that less is more.

Material Boys and Girls

Your kid's obsession with acquiring stuff may seem obnoxious, but it's actually a natural outgrowth of two very positive developments. First, his imagination is blossoming, which is terrific—except for the fact that it makes him much more vulnerable to advertising. If he sees a kid having a great time playing with a truck on TV, for instance, he can easily picture how much fun he'd have with it too.

Your child is also getting good at socializing and communicating. While this makes for great playdates, it means he's now comparing notes about toys, clothes, and other gear with his peers—and then demanding that you buy him the same stuff.

    Enough Is Enough

    It's fun to indulge your child's desires, but giving in too often shows her that nagging works. "She'll expect to always get her way, which will lead to constant arguments and disappointment," says Jean Illsley Clarke, Ph.D., a family-life educator in Minneapolis and co-author of How Much Is Enough? Follow these steps to strike a balance.

      • Set some ground rules. Before your next trip to the mall, say, "We're just buying the things that are on our list."
      • Stick to your word. If you waffle when your child whines, he'll keep doing it. Acknowledge his frustration—"I know you're sad"—but stay firm.
      • Explain the difference between wants and needs. Say something like, "We all need food. You don't need the Dora toy, even if you really want it." Your child may not get it at first, but eventually she'll learn.
      • Temper the tantrums. When your child has a meltdown, let her know that you're annoyed at her behavior—and that it won't work. Tell her you'll wait until she calms down, and then ignore her until she does.
      • Be a role model. Show that you can delay gratification. For instance, when you're shopping, say, "Wow! That's a beautiful dress! I'm going to save up for it so I can buy it soon."
      • Be extremely generous with the best gift of all: your time. "Remember, your attention is far more valuable than any toy or video you can give," says Roni Leiderman, Ph.D., of the Mailman Segal Institute for Early Childhood Studies at Nova Southeastern University, in Fort Lauderdale.
      • Don't bribe your child to behave well. She'll become desensitized to getting gifts, and the bribes will have to become bigger and bigger. Instead, when you're pleased with how she's acted, tell her, "You must be very proud."
      • Remember that saying yes—on occasion—is okay. The best treats to get your child are items that relate to his interests, Dr. Leiderman says. If he loves music, buy him the CD he's been wanting for several weeks, not a random game or action figure he saw on TV, asked for once, and then never mentioned again. When you do buy a goodie on impulse, explain, "That's a good choice. We can get this today." That leaves room for you to say, "Not this time, but maybe another day," the next time he wants something.
      • Share the joy of giving. Help your child pack up some of her old or neglected toys and clothes, and donate them to a local charity. Giving to others who are less fortunate than she is will help her learn to appreciate all the things she owns.

        Copyright© 2005. Reprinted with permission from the June 2005 issue of Parents magazine.

          All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.