No matter what you do, life with small kids guarantees a certain amount of strife and high emotion. After all, you can't expect that your 3-year-old won't bonk her head and have a meltdown in the course of an average day, that your toddler and preschooler won't squabble endlessly over a toy, or that your exhausted 4-month-old won't wail when you try to put her down.
But after five years of being a mom, I now see how predictable many conflicts in family life can be and how easy it is to go overboard when trying to respond in esteem-affirming, intellectually stimulating, developmentally appropriate ways. And while life with small kids will always be noisy and filled with emotional extremes, my husband and I have decided that we don't have to take every disturbance of the peace in our home as a matter of course. We've come up with these rules—for us, not the kids—to help our lives run smoothly.
Don't make an exception you don't want to become the
Who knows exactly how it happened? The embarrassing fact is that for several years my firstborn, Anna, had dinner and then, 45 minutes later, had dinner again, with a full plate of food brought to her in bed (along with a toothbrush and water) when she pronounced she was starving minutes before lights-out. Of course, I never intended to kowtow to my toddler like this. But the first night it seemed easier than a fight, and by the next, it had become an inalienable right. While I don't have a problem with a toddler's tendency to graze rather than eat three squares a day, I started to feel silly rushing a complete meal to her bedside.
This is why it's best to pause for a moment before a concession, to weigh the benefits and potential consequences. If it's something that's not in your child's or your best interests (yes, it's okay to take your interests into account), think long and hard before giving in.
But if you do give in (or already have, as I did), ending an expected privilege cold turkey is far worse than if you'd never caved in initially. "For little kids, not receiving something they've come to feel entitled to hurts in complete disproportion to the pleasure they received from it in the first place," says Catherine Chambliss, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Ursinus College, in Collegeville, PA. "And once something enters the realm of possibility, it's always there, a potential goal for your child to work toward."
Which explains why, years after we finally stopped dinner in bed (to great hue and cry, I might add), my 5-year-old daughter still tries for "just a sliced apple" every once in a while at bedtime, clutching her stomach for dramatic effect. By giving in years ago, we established that getting dinner in bed is something that can happen—if she can hit just the right combination of whining and tears.
If you feel that you're routinely engaged in time-consuming efforts to salve your child's potential ire—hand washing a dirty cup for a tantrum-threatening 2-year-old, letting your 4-year-old's bedtime routine expand to include back rubs, dancing and puzzles—the time has come to say what you should have said in the beginning: No. The fallout will be dramatic for a day or two, says Chambliss, but your child will get used to this new definition of normal. In the process, you can get into the much healthier practice of setting reasonable limits in the first place rather than breaking bad habits later.
Let routines reign
The same child who remembers every single special exception you've ever made develops amnesia when it comes to doing things you actually want her to do—such as getting dressed in the morning, brushing her teeth before bed, or putting away her toys. Nevertheless, establishing set routines, especially for particularly hectic times of the day (like bedtime or meals), is one of the best ways to save yourself from making the same requests again and again.
Even more important, says Chambliss, is how regular schedules make toddlers and especially preschoolers feel. "Kids feel comforted by a routine—it simplifies the whole learning process for them. Their world is easier to learn because they know what is going to happen. They take pride in 'we do it this way.'"
The first step in establishing this sort of order in your family life is to be realistic and selective about what will work in your house. Avoid approaches that you don't wholly believe in, such as a standard of neatness to which you don't hold yourself. Or limits you and your spouse don't agree on: Nothing deflates a "no dessert until you're in pj's" rule quite as quickly as a spouse who's willing to dish up the pudding to kids who are still in street clothes.
A good time to start patterns you approve of is when your child is around 18 months. That's when you can gradually move from a schedule essentially controlled by the demands of the baby to an ordered, predictable routine established to fit both of your needs, says Robert Pianta, Ph.D., professor of education at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville.
Older kids need to know the routine for it to work. So if you plan to start a fresh one, have a formal talk in which you outline the program. Then write it neatly on a piece of paper—maybe with little pictures for a young child, such as a toothbrush, a book and a bed. Or mark it clearly on a calendar if it's an every-few-days rather than a daily occurrence. This will give it an air of inevitability.
The payoff for all this work: a household that can, during a few moments a day, run on autopilot.
Don't offer too many choices
Recently, when I was visiting my friend Kim Speek in Boulder, CO, I stopped at the store to pick up a few sippy cups. Pleased with the variety of colors I'd picked, I held them out to our assembled brood to pick their favorite. Naturally, they all wanted the same one. Kim solved the dilemma by mixing and matching lids, but I could have nipped this one in the bud by simply getting all one color.
It may be nice to have a favorite cup, but it's not absolutely necessary. Somehow my husband and I manage to eat off identical plates every day—as does every adult we know—which may be why we never fight over which of us will get the 101 Dalmations salad dish.
Certainly, toddlers and preschoolers enjoy choices and need to learn to make decisions. In an effort to build self-esteem, though, you can end up offering options far in excess of what's practical. And you may be asking your kids to make up their mind far more than they'd like. "Both kids and adults relish choice up to a point," says Chambliss. "But too much can create stress."
When you do present choices, make sure you only give ones you like. Don't let your child call the shots on the dinner menu, for example, if you're not prepared to make both hot dogs and pizza. At the very least, make the decision easy for you, such as pasta without cheese or with it. Or offer what sounds like a choice but isn't: milk with dinner or afterward with dessert. The no-milk option isn't available.
Keep things on a need-to-know basis
The car meltdown invariably went like this: We'd be driving along and my husband would spot something he knew would interest our then 2-year-old daughter: an animal, a bird, even a sign. He'd point it out to Anna and she'd look the wrong way or too slowly or be too short to see, so she'd miss it altogether. Then she would cry and demand to see whatever it was. More than once, I'll admit, we turned the car around.
In our new strategy—we don't tell, they don't cry—we edit the information we share with our children. For instance, I've finally learned not to tell my daughter about unconfirmed possibilities, such as a special dessert on the menu, until I know for sure. When I know Anna is going to be out the day the magician comes to school, I keep this information to myself. I've also figured out that overly early warnings—for instance, morning notice of an evening babysitter—only serve to launch my daughter into an all-day bargaining and negotiating session over when we'll leave and how long we'll be out.
And then there's the stuff I still sometimes tell in the interest of honesty and almost always regret. Why tell a picky eater that there are pureed onions in the soup she was happily eating? Why admit to an exhausted child that it isn't technically bedtime on the clock? Honesty is an important value, but for both kids and adults there are often competing imperatives, such as health, safety and household harmony.
So when should you be honest and when should you dissemble? "You don't want to trick them and tell them later about the onions in the soup because they'll learn not to trust you," advises Chambliss. "But if it doesn't come up, why go ahead and volunteer the information?"
"If there's one thing I wish I'd known early on, it's that you have to act like the boss," says Ann Green, mom of two sons in Petoskey, MI. "My brother, who has five kids, just says, 'We are going right now, so get in the car'—and those kids would go." During her first years as a mom, says Green, she often wavered after an initial command, which opened the door to whining and crying. Now, she says, "I rarely say no or issue fierce orders, but when I do, I mean it."
This is the key to avoiding whining, says Chambliss. "Parents can get into the habit of responding no when they really don't mean it, which teaches the child that if he hangs in there long enough, eventually the parent will cave in." So don't make a firm demand you don't intend to see obeyed no matter what. When you back down, it unintentionally reinforces all those behaviors you most want to eliminate: wheedling, negotiating, bartering.
If you have difficulty laying down the law, think about what you've respected (or disliked) in the employers or teachers in your life. Starting at around age 1, your toddler wants from you what you want from your boss: clear, unwavering expectations. This doesn't mean arbitrarily answering your child's requests or actions with a string of no's. It just means you have to think through and stick with your decision. Not only will you reduce whining, but you'll also be modeling an important skill that would serve anyone well.
Unlike some other virtues, democracy doesn't start at home. You don't have to constantly take into account the views of your kids. Nor do you need to fully explain your actions, especially to kids under 5. In fact, rather than softening an unpopular decision, many times an explanation can make it worse. "When you give kids too much information, they think that you're giving them a chance to negotiate," says Pianta.
Parents often fall into the overexplanation trap early, when their 3- or 4-year-old's verbosity and near-constant "Why?" leads them to overestimate preschool reasoning skills. Children that young should be given only the most cursory of explanations, says Pianta. And any kind of verbal approach should be abandoned when a toddler or preschooler is screaming or having a tantrum. "A little child isn't capable of taking your words and using them to help him manage his emotions," says Pianta. Instead, give him a hug and kiss (if he'll let you) and then just leave him alone.
Don't pick your battles—eliminate them
Tired of arguments over junk food, candy or video games? The answer—at least while your kids are young—is totally within your power. If you arrange your household so that it doesn't contain things you don't want, then those things can't be a source of conflict. Sick of endlessly saying "Don't touch" to your toddler? Put breakables out of sight. Tired of nightly negotiations about how many bites of dinner have to be consumed in order to get an ice cream sandwich? Don't have sweets in the house (or make them a weekend-only treat).
Getting rid of stuff will be hard at first. But if you're spending too much time denying and your kids are spending too much time whining, maybe you'd all be happier if there was nothing to forbid or beg for.
Of course, as your kids get older, they'll be exposed to and have access to things you don't approve of when they visit friends. But they live with you, not their friends and it's your decisions that will resonate.
While my husband and I try to follow these rules in order to make our lives easier, they also benefit Anna and her younger sister, Kate. After all, if our family is humming along in harmony, we're open to the kind of childish, spontaneous, chaotic fun that always bubbles up in a house with children—and warrants exceptions to all kinds of rules.
Barbara Rowley's most recent book is Baby Days, an activities guide for parents of young children.