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Not in Public: How to Curb Inappropriate Behavior

"Parents of toddlers should brace themselves for some awkward moments," advises Beth Teitelman, director of the parenting center at the 92nd Street Y, in New York City. Why? Children this age are beginning to express ideas and revel in their physical abilities -- but haven't yet realized that some things aren't appropriate to say or do in public.

That's where Mom and Dad need to step in, especially if their child's actions could hurt others' feelings or even injure someone physically. Setting boundaries can be tricky, particularly for a person whose energy and curiosity seem to defy limits. But it can be done -- effectively and lovingly.

Keep Your Cool

It's hard to stay calm when your child acts inappropriately, but try to remember that she probably means no harm. A toddler can't yet gauge the responses to her actions -- she doesn't know that picking her nose at Grandma's birthday dinner is impolite.

Don't view the behavior as a reflection of poor parenting skills, and try to ignore any glares from other adults (inevitable if your child is, say, sampling grapes at the grocery store). "Your obligation is to your child, not to bystanders," Teitelman says.

Concentrate on ways to correct the problem -- gently and without blame. "Punishment can leave 2-year-olds feeling crushed," explains Douglas Gregory, M.D., a pediatrician in Suffolk, Virginia. "They'll respond with fear or aggression." Instead, Teitelman suggests, weigh your other options: "Instruct, distract, and ignore."

Finding the words that can get a toddler to abandon an undesirable behavior requires some skill. "Lecturing does nothing," says Edward Christophersen, Ph.D., a psychologist at Children's Mercy Hospital, in Kansas City, Missouri. "Your 2-year-old simply won't understand and will tune you out." Keep your instructions short -- the fewer words, the better.

"And whatever you say, be very matter-of-fact and don't overreact," advises Judith Leipzig, a professor of early-childhood and elementary education at the graduate school of Bank Street College of Education, in New York City. "If your child is talking loudly, respond quietly," she suggests. "Try to answer questions with a simple, honest response." (Little Ivan's "Is that man a monster?" could be answered, "No, he's a man.") If the topic is complicated -- "Why is that man so big?" -- it's okay to say, "I don't know" or "That's just the way his body is made." Don't demand that your child apologize. "He was asking a question, looking for some reassurance -- not trying to upset anyone. And he is probably not aware that his voice can be heard by those around him," Leipzig says. "If you are sure the man overheard and is insulted, you might want to apologize briefly yourself."

Children also respond better to explicit directions and positive phrasing, Dr. Christophersen says. So if your toddler decides to yell out the alphabet in the pediatrician's waiting room, saying, "Let's color instead" works better than telling him, "Stop it!"

If talking is getting you nowhere, however, it's time to take action. "My son Steven was a climber," says Paula Krasnoff, of Columbus, Ohio. "No matter how many times I tried to explain to him that climbing was rude or dangerous, the only thing that really worked was removing him from whatever it was that he was scaling. He'd eventually lose interest."

This strategy works even better if you offer a good distraction. For example, if your child is a chronic nose picker, always have something on hand for her to play with. And if he's running down the department-store aisles, the ultimate distraction may be in order: a change of scenery. "You may not be finished shopping, but sometimes it's easier to change your plans than to change your 2-year-old," Teitelman says.

There are times when it's best simply to ignore or downplay behavior. That may feel impossible, but you have to learn to pick your battles. Say you've had a hectic morning running errands with your child, and moods are already fragile. Let her continue hissing like a snake if it amuses her. That freedom may mean she'll get into her car seat without a fight.

Bad language is something else that shouldn't be blown out of proportion, but it shouldn't be ignored either. "Downplaying it is always the best route," Dr. Gregory advises, "especially if your child's looking for a reaction." Sure, it's hard not to bat an eyelash when your 2-year-old yells, "Damn!" right in the middle of the library. But calmly responding, "That word's not nice" and putting off an explanation until you're someplace private demonstrates that the shock value (and the attention that comes with it) just isn't there.

Of course, some situations should always be addressed swiftly and directly -- dangerous activities, like rocking a stack of cans in the market, or hurtful ones, like hitting another child. "Even on your worst days, never ignore safety issues or your child's aggressive behavior," Teitelman cautions.

One final piece of advice: Try to look on the bright side. Your toddler's curiosity, impulsiveness, and lack of inhibition are assets -- she's simply testing the waters, finding her place in the world.

  1. Always use good manners and nice language in your home, advises psychologist Edward Christophersen, Ph.D. There's the temptation to slack off in your own house and roll out "company manners" only for special occasions like visits, but that's a mistake. "Your child learns by imitating you," he explains. "If you use the occasional bad word when you're talking to your spouse, don't expect your child to understand that he can't curse too."
  2. Try some positive reinforcement. "Don't take notice only when kids misbehave," Dr. Christophersen says. "If your toddler is playing nicely or conversing well, support it by paying attention and interacting with him. That will build his self-esteem and lead to respectful behavior."
  3. Know your child's limits. "Keep her developmental and temperamental needs in mind," says education professor Judith Leipzig. "If you absolutely must take your daughter to that daylong wedding, bring along a baby-sitter. It will pay off I the long run."

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