"Ball." "Go." "No." "Poop." Among toddlers, these are a few of the most commonly uttered words. My 20-month-old son, Austin, however, has one he loves more: "lollipop." Not only is he addicted to candy on a stick -- he knows how to get it. I've sunk into this sticky situation by using the pops to sucker Austin and his 3-year-old sister, Avery, into getting dressed, sitting still, and putting on their shoes. I know it's bad, and even though I've confided in my friends -- who have in turn confessed their own bad mommy moments -- I can neither stop nor feel okay about doing it.
But while venting can be empowering, it doesn't erase nagging shadows of failure. "The key is to use specific situations where you feel like you're falling short to gain insight that will help you to make a change for the better," says Janeen Hayward, a therapist and founder of Swellbeing.com, a parenting-resource service in New York City. In the interest of assisting moms, I offered up several real-life scenarios and posed them to top experts. Their advice will explain why you shouldn't stress -- and how to move past your parenting pitfalls.
Getting Avery to take a midday snooze session has been a battle since she was born. For years, I fought long and hard to get her to sleep for at least an hour while she protested in any way she could: screaming, banging her head, and even once vaulting out of her crib. Then one day I discovered that no shut-eye also meant no fight at bedtime. Sure, I had to endure a cranky afternoon. If she started to drift off, I'd immediately wake her up by tickling her or playing loud music, even though I knew she could use the extra shut-eye. But passing on her nap ensured that Avery passed right out by 7 P.M., giving me an evening to do all the things I longed to do: read, e-mail, and catch up on Glee.
GIVE UP THE GUILT "It's okay for kids to skip a nap once they've reached age 3," says Jennifer Waldburger, a sleep consultant in Los Angeles and coauthor of The Sleepeasy Solution. Even with some younger kids, if napping clearly interferes with the ability to fall asleep at a reasonable evening hour -- by 8:30 P.M. for kids up to age 6 -- Waldburger says it's a worthwhile trade-off.
MAKE IT BETTER While your kid is transitioning out of the nap zone, set aside some time during the day for low-key activities, such as coloring or reading, to give her body a rest, suggests Waldburger. "If your child falls asleep in the stroller or car during the day, it's okay to gently wake her," says Waldburger. And what if she's not getting the 11 to 13 hours a day she needs? (On average, preschoolers fall short in the snooze department, logging 9.6 hours, according to The National Sleep Foundation in Washington, D.C.) "Shift her bedtime earlier, by 30 to 60 minutes, to compensate," Waldburger says.
Yes, I admit it, I'm the mom who didn't keep her kid home until she was totally better and then got the call ordering me to come fetch her immediately because her temperature was a scalding 104?F. Mortified, I rushed Avery to the pediatrician, who lectured me about always waiting 24 fever-free hours to reintroduce her to the outside world.
GIVE UP THE GUILT Let's face it, most little kids are sick a lot. And it's hard to know if they're getting ill or getting over something. "If you keep your child out of school every time she has the sniffles, she'll never leave the house. Just do the best you can," says Tanya Remer Altmann, M.D., author of Mommy Calls: Dr. Tanya Answers Parents' Top 101 Questions About Babies and Toddlers.
MAKE IT BETTER If your child has had a fever, vomiting, or something that's obviously contagious such as strep throat, she should stay home. Once she's been on antibiotics for 24 hours, it's probably okay for her to return to school as long as she seems up to it. Even if some of the symptoms are still lingering she's unlikely to be contagious, according to Dr. Altmann.
Two weeks ago, I left Avery coloring in the family room while I went to the kitchen to make coffee. Exactly 90 seconds later, I returned to find her limbs covered in ballpoint pen -- as was our beige sofa. I snapped, snatched a sponge, and scolded her loudly enough for the neighbors to hear. As her face crumpled into tears, I immediately felt awful too. She'll be scarred for life, I thought, especially if that black ink doesn't come off her arms. (It did.)
GIVE UP THE GUILT "We all lose our temper with our children from time to time," says Michael Thompson, Ph.D., a psychologist in Arlington, Massachusetts, and author of It's a Boy! Understanding Your Son's Development From Birth to Age 18. The good news? Blowing your stack once in a while can actually be a good thing: "Children need to see that parents aren't perfect," says Dr. Thompson. Yay to that!
MAKE IT BETTER "If you do lose your temper, give your child an apology and a brief explanation later," says Nell Gibbon, a psychotherapist and founder of Village Parenting and Counseling, in New York City. Going forward, try to stop things from escalating by allowing yourself a brief time-out. If possible, close your eyes and take slow, cleansing breaths for a minute -- not only will you feel calmer, you'll also be modeling self-soothing for your child. If she sees you deal with your anger this way, she'll start to use it as a technique when she feels mad or frustrated.
Bringing a rainbow-colored kickball to the park seemed like a great idea. But moments after Austin lifted it from under the stroller, a swarm of toddlers appeared, each vying for a chance to get their grubby little hands on it. "No! No! No!" Austin bellowed as the kids tried to swipe it from him. Most of the time I'm all about taking turns, but in this case I literally stooped low enough to bat a 4-year-old's hands away -- and not gently -- as he attempted to nab the ball. Effective? Sure, but 15 minutes later, as I recounted the story to my husband, I felt ridiculous. Seriously, what kind of mom spars with toddlers?
GIVE UP THE GUILT "A 20-month-old is just starting to understand the concept of sharing," says Gibbon. But no matter what age kid you have, it's usually better not to bring playthings to the park that are bound to be total kid magnets. Even the most easygoing turn-takers can get freaked out if other children are grabbing for their treasured stuff.
MAKE IT BETTER Don't frustrate your child (or yourself) further by expecting too much. In the meantime, get his learning on at his next playdate: Try setting a timer. Explain that one child will have a chance to play with the toy until the "beep," and then it's the other kid's turn. Keep the intervals short -- no more than one or two minutes. You can keep setting and resetting at quicker intervals, so by the end half the challenge is being able to move the object back and forth quickly enough.