Pick Your Battles When Disciplining Toddlers

How to Decide Which Fights to Pick

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.

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