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Pester power or puny parenting?

I CAN'T remember the last time I was standing by the sweets at my local Tesco checkout with whining kids and decided to save everyone's eardrums by shutting them up with a couple of Kinder Surprises.

Actually, I can't remember doing it ever. This is not because I'm some strong-minded Cruella de Vil whose children don't dare utter a peep in public. (I, like many parents, struggle to find the word "no".) It is because the disappearance of sweets at the checkouts is not a new revolution, but the end of an old one, which began for Tesco 20 years ago when it axed them from some stores.

In fact, the last time I noticed what was located at the checkouts was a few weeks ago in Lidl, when I was entertained to find a trough of nuts, seeds and dried fruits worthy of a wholefoods store or pet shop. The supermarket, it seemed to me, had gone amusingly far in its attempts to look like a health-pushing supernanny. This was more than a nudge; it was a "look at me" performance.

The till treats Tesco is getting rid of this year are at its smaller Metro and Express stores. This story has been presented as a tale of a supermarket giant finally getting on-side with beleaguered parents - in part because Tesco itself said 67% of parents said not having sweets near the checkout would help them make healthier choices for their children.

Most of the major stores - Sainsbury's, Tesco, the Co-operative - already have policies of not placing sugary treats next to checkouts. Gradually, the sweet stuff is disappearing from such sites, and a good thing too.

But I can't help thinking the reason this became a story is that the idea of "pester power" is one that gets many non-parents and disciplinarians shaking their heads over the jelly-backboned mums and dads who can't say "no" to their demanding little darlings. Look at any online story about the Tesco announcement and you'll find countless rants about just saying no in the comments section.

First coined as a term in the late 1990s, pester power's arrival coincided with both a change in parenting style towards a more permissive approach, and a rise in consumerism (including aggressive marketing that attempted to harness the "junior pound"). Research suggests that parenting style does play at least some role in the issue: Children only pester when they think they can get something. Give in, even if only now and again, and they're bound to whinge for more.

Hence the fact that although I have a rule - the kids only get to choose one item, maybe a cereal or a packet of biscuits, per shop - they still try it on, because I have been known to cave in.

Even pester power can have its virtues however - some might think it's all right for a parent to give in to a child who pesters them to buy, for example, energy-saving light bulbs. In fact, surveys have shown that children are now increasingly involved in family purchases of all kinds, from breakfast cereal though to the family car. Some might shake their heads in horror. But this is one way in which the kids learn to navigate one of life's great challenges: consumerism. It is part of their education in how to deal with the dazzling and bewildering world of ever-expanding consumer choice.

That said, I often abdicate this particular challenge. My kids do go to supermarkets, but not too often. Their dad does much of the shopping on his way home from work, or we swoop in on Tesco for a lightning family raid. We avoid shops or anything resembling a retail outlet in our leisure hours.

Thus we create our own little nanny state in which I don't have to say "no" too much. My respect goes to those parents who do navigate the migraine-inducing negotiations of the retail park. When they do it right, they are probably teaching their kids something infinitely valuable. But, heck - anything for the easy life. I'm keeping my leisure time for the beach, where the most consumerist thing we are likely to encounter is an ice-cream van. To which I know I'm going to give in.

Contextual targeting label: 
Families

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