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40 Ways to Prevent Tantrums

Just when you've managed to get everything on your grocery list with toddler in tow, you wind up in the checkout line with the cashier-in-training. The man ahead of you is demanding a price check on every purchase, and your daughter starts whining, "Go home NOW!" You search for something to distract her, but all you see are racks of TV Guides and National Enquirers and a woman behind you with that my-child-would-never-behave-that-way look on her face. The best you can come up with are those useless words, "Let's try to be patient. It's almost our turn."

At moments like this, most parents wish they were carrying a purse like the one Mary Poppins had -- a bottomless bag of treasures to keep a child amused until the groceries are bagged, the waitress finally brings the burgers, or the doctor is ready to see you. However, with a bit of planning, you can have an array of interesting items and activity ideas on hand to distract your child -- and stave off a tantrum.

"Prepared waiting" not only makes things more pleasant in the present but teaches children a lifelong skill: how to take waiting in stride. When my youngest son, Nate, was 6, he got so used to sitting through school-committee meetings with me that he came up with a new word. "Wait! I have to get my occupiance!" he'd say, dashing off to collect paper, crayons, or comics to bring along.

Of course, you can't expect your kids to be patient if you're fuming about the wait yourself. But just saying, "Hey, maybe we have time to play a game" can put everyone in a fresh frame of mind. I talked to parents around the country to get their best save-the-day strategies.

  • Play treasure hunt.

    In a waiting room, grab a few magazines and say, "Who can find a picture of a flower?" The first one to spot it gets to name the next object to find.
  • Plan special deliveries.

    Write a letter to your child -- in pig latin if he's old enough -- and keep it in your purse. You might even enclose a few stickers in the envelope. A younger child may like to play postman and deliver his mail back to you.
  • Get silly.

    Suddenly announce, "Oh, I think I hear the tickle spider coming to see you!" and delicately walk your fingers up her arm.
  • Don't show and tell.

    Have your child close his eyes. Take something out of your purse, and put it in his hand. See if he can guess what it is.
  • "Draw" on your child's back.

    Trace a face with your finger, and see if she can tell which feature you're drawing. Try letters, numbers, or even words. Let her draw something on your back
  • Snag some supplies.

    If you don't have something to draw on at a restaurant, ask the waitress to bring over some paper place mats or extra napkins.
  • Tell a story together.

    "Happily and unhappily" is a wonderful game that my sister-in-law from England taught us. You might say, "Happily, Peter received a card with five dollars in it from Grandma." "Unhappily, the wind blew it down the street," your child says. "Happily, it stopped right in front of his house." "Unhappily, the dog grabbed it and ran off. . ." and so on.
  • Pose a question.

    Have your children respond with words starting with their initials: For example, "What do you like to do, Emily Johnson?" "Eat jelly!"
  • Play hangman.

    Here's a variation on the standard game that you can play with a younger child: Tell him a three-letter word; then make three dashes and have him try to guess what the letters are.
  • Try "I spy."

    Say, "I spy something yellow" or "I spy something that begins with the letter S." Whoever guesses correctly picks the next thing to find. A variation that's easier for young children is to say, "Follow my eyes to something blue" and have them guess what you're looking at.
  • Play with food.

    Bring Cheerios for your baby or toddler to a restaurant, and make a face out of them for her to gobble up.
  • Count cash.

    Take out a dollar bill, and have your child guess how many times the word one appears on each side. How about the number 1? Try coins and other bills. Then let your child quiz you.
  • Fantasize.

    Imagine your dream bedroom. My son's contained a swimming pool, and mine had a fireplace.

  • Watch the second hand.

    Can your child guess when a minute is up? How about 45 seconds?
  • Make predictions.

    For example, the next person to come in the door (or get in line) will be a woman with short brown hair.
  • Read lips.

    Can your child figure out what you're saying just by watching your lips move? Start out with some easy words like hi and wow, and then work your way up to longer phrases.
  • Pick up a pen.
    Show your child how his name looks in cursive, in huge block letters, or in shaky writing.
  • Remember Mommy.

    Have your child look at you and then tell him to close his eyes. What color is your shirt? Are you wearing earrings? Is your hair in a ponytail?
  • Make up stories about strangers.

    Look out the window or around the restaurant, and tell tales about the people you see ("See that man who's crossing the street? What do you think he's up to?"). This is a good way to encourage kids not only to observe details but also to be discreet.
  • Create a dual drawing.

    Let your child make a squiggle or a line, then add something to it and pass it back to him.
  • Hide a coin in your hand.

    Ask your child to guess which hand it's in. If she guesses correctly, she gets to hide it the next time.
  • Have some finger fun.

    Make two puppets by drawing a face on the tips of each of your child's index fingers.
  • Play tabletop concentration.

    Take six things out of your handbag, and lay them on the table. Have your child close her eyes while you remove one. Can she guess which item is missing?
  • Name that tune.

    Tap out the rhythm of a song, and see if your child can guess it. If he needs a clue, tell him the first word.
  • Make a goofy face.

    See if your toddler can imitate you.

Ask your kids questions that will get their imagination in gear.

  • What do you want to do for your next birthday party?
  • Where would you rather be right now?
  • What would you change your name to if you could?
  • What do you think the world would be like if there were no such thing as money?
  • What would happen if dogs were in charge and people were their pets?

Stock your handbag with:

  • Modeling clay in a sandwich bag
  • Crayons and a small pad
  • Stickers
  • A mini tape measure
  • Wikki Sticks (inexpensive, bendable, waxy sticks for creating sculptures or letters)
  • A short piece of rope with a big knot to pick loose
  • Windup toys
  • Post-it notes
  • A small flashlight
  • An unbreakable mirror