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Pick Your Battles When Disciplining Toddlers

When my son A.J. was 2 1/2, he became obsessed with his Superman Halloween costume. He wanted to wear it everywhere -- dinner, bed, play dates, and grocery shopping. But marching down the frozen-foods aisle with a kid in a cape was where I drew the line.

"Why not let him?" said my husband, Tony. "It's not hurting anyone."

"I can't let him out in public dressed as Superman," I said. "It's ridiculous. I'll look like one of those moms who just gave up all control."

So for a while, I fought with A.J. He kicked and screamed as I peeled the Man of Steel suit off and wrestled him into his sweatpants and T-shirts. This was, of course, in addition to all our other battles -- getting buckled into the car seat, eating vegetables before ice cream, holding my hand every time we crossed the street.

One day I realized how tiresome all this fighting was. I gave up. "Leave the Superman suit on," I said. "It's really not a big deal." And suddenly it wasn't. A.J. was ecstatic, and the first time he went out wearing it, I noticed a toddler girl decked out in a pink tutu walking down the other side of the street, her mother looking weary but resigned. And guess what? Within about two weeks, A.J. had forgotten about being Superman and lost interest in the costume. His regular clothes, he decided, were just dandy. It dawned on me that I had learned something important: When you're raising a toddler, you have to learn to pick your battles.

Every parent who's ever had a sweet, compliant baby turn into a stubborn, tantrum-throwing toddler wonders the same thing: What did I do wrong? Actually, nothing. "Toddlers are highly impulsive and self-centered," notes Ann Douglas, author of The Mother of All Toddler Books (John Wiley & Sons). "They have a strong need to demonstrate their independence, and endless curiosity about their environment." Unfortunately, these positive qualities translate into behaviors that adults consider dangerous, weird, or just plain annoying -- ripping up books, emptying drawers, pulling the cat's tail.

Parents often wear themselves out trying to correct every misbehavior. Michelle Weinstein of Pittsburgh knew she was saying no too often when her daughter, 18-month-old Aubrey, started following the dog around, shaking her finger and chanting, "No bark, no bark." "She hears me say no all day long," says Weinstein. "I think it was her first word."

Eventually, hearing no over and over will make a child tune out, says Michele Borba, author of No More Misbehavin': 38 Difficult Behaviors and How to Stop Them (Jossey-Bass). "Toddlers get overwhelmed by being constantly corrected," she says. "They are trying to make sense of their world, and a constant barrage of instructions makes them interpret it as a negative, overwhelming place."

Carrie Templin, mother of Ben, 5, and Will, 2, in Edgeworth, Pennsylvania, found a tactic that works well. "Instead of saying no 30 times a day, I'll say, 'That's a good idea, maybe we'll try it another time.' Redirecting them works much better than just saying no over and over."

Other strategies: Use different words -- stop, dirty, or hot instead of no, suggests Douglas. Also, offer alternatives to the nerve-racking behavior, she adds. If your son wants to color on the fridge, tape a big piece of paper to it and let him loose; if he wants to jump on your heirloom sofa, give him a pile of soft floor pillows to bounce on instead. And as a general rule, don't schedule major expeditions or events when you know your child is likely to be tired or hungry.

Of course, there are situations where offering other options or saying no with a different word isn't going to work. It comes down to giving in or duking it out. To save your sanity and allow your toddler some sense of autonomy, you need to figure out which battles are fight-worthy and which aren't. For most parents, health and safety issues come first. There's no negotiating about using a car seat or running in the street. But what about all the other stuff? Is it worth making an issue about crumbs on the living room sofa? Or should you save your energy for insisting on Sunday school every weekend? What about candy? Thumb sucking? Many of these decisions will depend on your own values and tolerance levels. For instance, Laura Hughes of Sewickley, Pennsylvania, was never going to let her 3-year-old daughter, Cate, play with Barbies. "I had all the usual PC reasons -- body image and so on," she says. "But when she got a Barbie for Christmas, and I saw how much joy she got out of it -- she calls it Jason for some unknown reason and drags it everywhere -- I realized that it was time to give in on the Barbies."

Each family must decide on its own hot-button issues, says Borba: "The battles worth fighting are the ones you care most about -- behaviors that help form your kids' character as human beings." To figure out your top 10, try this mental trick. "Fast-forward 25 years from now, and picture your toddler grown up. What traits do you want to see in him -- empathy, honesty, perseverance, responsibility? Once you identify what matters most, it's easier to figure out what battles to choose and which to let go of. You'll begin to see that crackers on the floor might not matter so much."

Still, you can't have total bedlam right now; you need to set some day-to-day rules or life will be chaotic. For Lori Ann Pina of San Diego, mother of 4-year-old Velika and 2-year-old Kveta, that means adhering to a strict 8 p.m. bedtime. "It's absolutely nonnegotiable because we need to get going early in the morning," she says. "The kids need their sleep. It's just easier for us to stick to a routine."

At our house I have always been fanatical about our "no crayons upstairs" rule; we have hardwood floors on the first floor and carpet on the second, so I see no need to be digging ground-up Crayolas out of the rug. Because I've stuck to this from day one, my kids wouldn't dream of taking a crayon anywhere near the carpet. For me, this has been a battle -- albeit a minor one -- worth going to the mat for.

Once you've laid down your rules, do your best to stick to them. "One of the most common blunders in parenting is inconsistency," says Borba. "It sends a mixed message to the child: Sometimes she means it, sometimes she doesn't." And if you let a child get away with breaking a rule once, it's extremely difficult to go back. Denise Mussman of St. Louis learned that lesson the hard way with her 2-year-old, Camille. "She tends to get her way by screaming," Mussman says. "Yesterday, I let her have a cupcake for breakfast, so she wanted one this morning, too."

Of course, being consistent is easier said than done -- especially when it comes to the smaller, non-life-or-death issues. Templin admits there are times when it's easier to bend and let her boys watch extra TV. "If I'm trying to do something -- make dinner or talk on the phone -- and they're watching a show, I tend to overlook it. I know I shouldn't, but sometimes I'm just too tired." She always regrets the aftermath of being inconsistent, however. "Once I've let something slip, it's five times harder to get them to do what I ask the next time." But even if you've been inconsistent in the past, there's always room for improvement. When Mussman finally decided to institute a no screaming rule, she got results. "Now, if Camille is upset and won't stop, she gets a time-out in my home office. She recently started giving herself time-outs -- she gets furious, goes up and shuts the door, and comes out calm and chatty."

Even though following through can be draining, the ground rules you lay now will continue to affect your kids for years to come. "Parents don't always think about the long-range goals," says Alan Greene, MD, a pediatrician and faculty member at Stanford University School of Medicine. "You really want to teach them to make wise decisions, rather than just to obey the rules by rote. What they learn now will carry through to the teen years and beyond."

Charlotte Latvala, a mother of three, lives in Sewickley, Pennsylvania.

Copyright © 2003 AmericanBaby.com.