Kids sure know how to push your buttons. But the way you respond when they act up determines whether you'll get better behavior next time.
You've said no -- it's too close to dinnertime for a sweet. In fact, you've said no more than once. But when you come back into the kitchen, you find your preschooler hanging precariously off the freezer door with a box of Popsicles clutched in her hand.
Do you explode? Or give in and let her have the pop? Either reaction would be normal because your brain tends to operate on autopilot in stressful situations. "But if you respond in an overly harsh or wimpy way, you miss the opportunity to teach your child the skills she needs to do the right thing in the future," says Becky Bailey, Ph.D., author of Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline. It's tough to keep your cool, but it'll be easier to discipline thoughtfully if you've already considered smart responses like the ones for the following situations.
When crossing the street, your 4-year-old won't hold your hand.
•Too Harsh "If you can't hold on, I'll pick you up and carry you!"
•Too Wimpy "Fine. But please stay really close to me, okay?"
•Just Right "When we get to the light, we will hold hands."
Holding hands when you cross the street is one of those non-negotiable safety issues. "This shouldn't be a debate. If she refuses, just take her hand," says Lynne Reeves Griffin, author of Negotiation Generation. Even when you threaten to carry her, you still make it sound like she has a choice.
When she won't share
Your 2-year-old snatches a toy train away from his friend who came over to play.
•Too Harsh "Bad boy! Give that back!"
•Too Wimpy "Come on... please say that you're sorry."
•Just Right "You really want a turn, and you're going to get a turn. You and Mommy can play with blocks together, and after we stack up ten blocks, it will be your turn to have the train."
Sharing doesn't come naturally for toddlers -- especially at their own house. Don't let your disappointment over your child's "selfish" behavior (or worries about what the other parent will think) interfere with your ability to reinforce the concept of taking turns, no matter how many times you feel like you've covered this ground before, says Parents advisor Sal Severe, Ph.D., author of How to Behave So Your Preschooler Will, Too! Remind him that his friend is only playing with the train for a little while, and use terms he can understand to explain how long he'll have to wait. When you're alone later, you can practice sharing, to help him appreciate the fact that taking turns doesn't mean losing a toy forever.
You're at the store and your 5-year-old keeps putting sugary cereals and candy in your cart.
•Too Harsh "Pull one more thing off the shelves and we leave with nothing!"
•Too Wimpy "Okay, we can buy that, but only this once."
•Just Right "These are the two cereals we can buy. You can choose which one you'd like. If you put anything else in the cart, you have to put it back."
"It's natural for young kids to want these foods -- after all, the packaging is designed to attract their curiosity," says Dr. Severe. Since you're focused on your list, your child may be tossing items into the cart in order to get your attention -- or to sneak in treats because you're distracted. Keep her engaged from the start by allowing her to make choices about items on the list (yellow or red apples? chocolate or vanilla pudding?) and let her put things you're buying into the cart for you.
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