Manage Your Behavior Expectations

Why won't your 3-year-old put his toys away? Um, because he's 3! Check out other behavior goals you might need to rethink.
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Thayer Allyson Gowdy

Recently, my kids, ages 2 and 3, had an absolute blast as they chased each other around trees and launched toy cars off a retaining wall. The problem? The point of our trip to Omaha was to be inside -- not outside -- the church where my godson was being baptized. Thankfully, my brother came out to watch the children so I could play my part in the ceremony. But I still felt embarrassed that he had to miss some of the baptism because my children just couldn't sit quietly.

Of course, it's perfectly reasonable for me to wish that my kids would be able to contain themselves for an hour, but the truth is, that's simply not in their skill set yet. "The part of a child's brain that controls his impulses and emotions matures very, very slowly," says Ross A. Thompson, Ph.D., a child-development researcher and professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis. "It's easy to assume that kids are being uncooperative or obstinate when really they're just acting their age." (Note to self: Next time arrange for a sitter.)

One reason parents often have unrealistic expectations is because a young child's behavior isn't consistent or predictable from day to day (or even moment to moment). Her attention span, ability to entertain herself, and inclination to play nicely with others depends on her mood, her level of fatigue, and a host of other factors. "Plus, parents aren't informed about what age-appropriate behaviors are," says Alan E. Kazdin, Ph.D., director of the Yale Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic, in New Haven, Connecticut. "Practicing together, rather than explaining, is the best way to help a child build new habits." Doing some trial runs at our own church, therefore, probably would have worked much better than, say, discussing the significance of a baptism with my kids.

So how do you know when it's you who needs the attitude adjustment? Discover how realistic (or pie-in-the-sky) these common wishes are and learn ways to help your child work toward mastering them -- eventually.

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