I don't remember what lapse in judgment led me to take my two young children to a store that featured hundreds of breakable knickknacks, a pinch-faced clerk, and a "You Break, You Buy" sign. What I do remember is grabbing my 3-year-old Charlie's hand at the tail end of an expansive gesture and rescuing several glass dolphins from certain extinction. Desperate to escape the store without any accidents, I told Charlie and his 6-year-old sister, Kyla, to "walk like Grandpa," a man who never takes a step without his hands clasped behind his back. Why he does this we have no idea. Improbably, the "Walk Like Grandpa" maneuver worked -- and helped us survive many more shopping expeditions or, more accurately, helped many shops survive us.
That day, I realized some of Kyla and Charlie's worst behavior could be avoided with a few fun games. None of the ideas I came up with needed rule books or fancy equipment. But they worked, and they elicited plenty of giggles along the way.
Problem Behavior: Not Listening
There's nothing scarier than seeing your toddler heading straight into the street, oblivious to the fact that you're yelling "Stop!" at the top of your lungs. Or spotting your little kid pulling a sharp knife off the counter, ignoring your cry of "No!" I confess that I overused those commands, so "stop" and "no" became white noise.
Fun Solution: Borrowing an idea from an old party activity, I cranked up the music and danced around with the kids. Then I switched it off and said, "Freeze!" We all froze. When they got really good at it, I tried it without music. Sure, we looked silly dancing around to the sound of silence, but soon, if I said "Freeze!" they stopped cold. Next we practiced in the outside world. I saved "no" and "stop" for nonemergencies like Charlie's putting eggs in his pocket or Kyla's poking her fingers in my ears. "Freeze" become our safe word -- one they associated with a fun game, so they didn't feel like defying (or ignoring) me when they heard it. Most important, it bought me just enough time to get to the kid who was in danger and scoop him up before anything bad happened.
Taking Turns & Exploring
Problem Behavior: Not Sharing
It's no wonder toddlers hate the phrase "take turns." The only time they hear it is when they have something of great value -- like, say, a yellow bus with a stop sign -- and someone is telling them to hand it over. Who can blame them for clutching the toy to their chest and yelling "Mine"? For all your child knows, he'll never see said bus again.
Fun Solution: When Charlie was having playgroup difficulties, we invented "taking turns." The whole family sat in a circle -- my husband and I, Charlie, and Kyla. I held up an item that was not special to Charlie -- a rolled-up sock -- and announced that we were going to take turns. We used the phrases, "May I have a turn when you're done?" and "Thank you," making sure that everyone held the sock more than once. The next time at playgroup, Charlie was still not thrilled to give up the squeaky clown, but he did it much more willingly, because he understood the language and knew that he would get another turn.
Problem Behavior: Exploring (aka Ransacking) Drawers and Cabinets
I locked up the bleach and did all the other childproofing things a mom is supposed to do. But then there were the things like frying pans, flour, and, yes, rainbow sprinkles. They weren't deadly, but I desired, for my own sanity, that Charlie leave them alone. If I had to lock up every drawer that contained potentially messy or noisy items, I'd lose my mind. Kids need to explore, but how do you encourage them to do so in a way that doesn't leave you with a headache, a huge mess, and a mom yelling at a kid who is just being, well, a kid?
Fun Solution: I walked around the kitchen with my toddler and when he went for a cabinet, I said either "For Charlie!" with a smile or "Not for Charlie!" with enormous gravity. After a few rounds, instead of lunging forward to open a door, he started looking up to see which phrase I'd say. It wasn't long before he would arrive at a cabinet and then stop dead in his tracks, emphatically shaking his head no (or, in rare cases, yes -- the Tupperware, for example, was all his). And this game travels as well. If we went to a friend's house, I would take a few minutes at the beginning of the visit to tour some of the hot spots of our new location, therefore saving me hours of pulling Charlie away from something "not for Charlie," like the freezer or the dog's water bowl.
Breaking & Opening
Problem Behavior: Heirloom Busting
Whenever we go to a not-so-childproofed locale, I think of my friend Nancy. While on a visit, her 3-year-old daughter managed to break the hand off a statue. Not just any statue, but a Jesus statue -- one that, two generations earlier, had been wrapped in blankets and lovingly carried from Belgium on a boat across the stormy Atlantic. Damn!
Fun Solution: To try to avoid similar disasters, I taught my kids to use their E.T. touch. Remember when E.T. healed Elliott's hurt finger by gently touching it with his own? Well, our E.T. touch doesn't heal anything, but it can keep things from breaking in the first place. When we arrive at a house, before my kids start checking things out (and by that, I mean "destroying irreplaceable things"), I take them around and point out which things are fragile -- requiring an "E.T. finger." The best part: After a few minutes of careful, monitored E.T.-like behavior, they always decide that there is something more interesting to do.
Problem Behavior: Not Being a Gracious Gift Opener
I used to think that honesty was a virtue. But that was before my kids learned to talk. Once Charlie started saying things like "You are a tiny man!" to a man with dwarfism and "That's some funny hair you've got!" to a guy with, well, funny hair, I decided that tact trumped honesty any day. To me the most nail-biting situation for parents of extremely honest kids is present-opening time. It's much easier to teach a kid to whisper his observations about a stranger than it is to get him to mask his disappointment at getting a book he already has two of.
Fun Solution: Before a party, we all go around the house and collect things that make horrible presents. Some past winners have been old kitchen sponges and a half-used bar of soap. Then we wrap the goodies and give them to each other. The challenge is to say something nice about whatever you open. "The green of that sponge matches my shirt!" If your kid can think of something nice to say about a slimy sliver of soap, he'll have no problem being gracious about getting mittens instead of the toy he really wanted.
Pocket the "Sillies"
Problem Behavior: Serious Silliness in All the Wrong Places
My friend Cathy has two exceptionally silly boys. They are widely known for their underarm fart noises, Captain Underpants impressions, and impromptu Three Stooges demonstration. Yet even when they were at their silliest ages, she took them to places like restaurants and museums. How did she do it?
Fun Solution: Before they walked through the door of a serious place, she'd tell her boys to put their "sillies" in their pockets. They'd have to grab the sillies by their scrawny necks and stuff them out of sight. Apparently you need to periodically check, because the sillies have a way of climbing out and ending up on the boys' shoulders or earlobes. But a quick reminder sends them scurrying back. Cathy did warn me that when the sillies start making a break for it and dashing down the halls, and you find yourself locking the sillies in the car, it's probably time to retire this game. I've tried the "sillies in your pocket" game with Charlie and Kyla, and it works really well. The best part is after we leave the museum and I tell them they can take their sillies out. Then the fun really begins!
Copyright © 2007. Reprinted with permission from the June 2007 issue of Parents magazine.