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4 Bad-Habit Makeovers

Raising kids, I used to think, how hard could it be? Anything you can carry around in a car seat can't be all that big a deal, right?

Given this line of reasoning, I deserved every bit of grief I got when my first child, Lucy, was born. Of course, it wasn't really my fault. I never slept. I breastfed round the clock, taking breaks only for wrestling matches with my unspeakably tight prepregnancy pants. My hormones mocked me. So I did whatever it took to survive.

Rather than listen to Lucy cry, I rocked her to sleep. If she woke up in the middle of the night, I let her stay in my bed, even though it meant I'd lie awake beside her. Then, when she was a toddler, I gave up on teaching her how to pick up toys. (I could do it faster and better.) And it wasn't just toys I was picking up; it was Lucy herself, who always seemed to get a case of rubber leg anytime we had to walk more than a few blocks.

I assumed she would outgrow these habits. But she didn't. She just got heavier, something I felt acutely when I was nine months pregnant with her baby sister. This couldn't go on. But was it too late to change the bad habits -- mine, as well as hers? No! Kids are flexible, and if we go about changing their ways correctly, they learn and adjust quickly.

And mercifully, I wasn't the first parent to need a do-over. In talking with other moms who'd sorted out these problems, I learned an easy three-step strategy: First, stop and figure out why Lucy's doing what she's doing; then gradually work toward replacement behavior that works better; finally, enforce the new rules carefully (and consistently!).

Falling asleep with Mom

Early on, I rocked Lucy to sleep and comforted her during late-night wake-up sessions because I wanted her to know I loved her. The idea of letting her tough it out never crossed my mind. I didn't know how to combine squishy love with firm rules.

Then, as all my friends' kids started sleeping through the night, and even toddling off to their cribs on their own, I started to wonder if, perhaps, I was screwing things up.

Fortunately for my ego, even experts run into these problems. In writing her book Rewards for Kids!, Virginia Shiller, Ph.D., had to field-test a fall-asleep strategy on her 6-year-old son Derek, a midnight rambler. It wasn't that Derek needed comfort (though there are times when a kid might wake up for that reason -- when there's an illness or divorce in the family, for example). But if kids wake up in the night, they often fall asleep more easily if they have an adult beside them, if that's what they're used to.

Shiller says she used two tools -- a chair and a reward plan -- to help Derek return to sleep on his own. She started with the chair by his bed for when he woke in the middle of the night. When he called out, she or her husband would sit beside the bed, not touching Derek, until he drifted off.

Every night, they moved the chair a little farther away. For each night he managed to fall asleep, he got to hunt for a small treasure and track his successes on a reward chart the next morning. By the time three weeks had passed, he'd learned to get himself back to sleep without a peep.

The approach gave Derek a fun, tangible way to measure his progress, even as his parents were in charge. Rewards worked for Lucy, too. She coveted a giant pair of blue fairy wings, and I promised I'd buy them for her if she stayed in her own bed all night for a week.

Lucy made it -- with one small slipup. One night, I heard her tiptoeing into our room, but all I had to do was whisper "fairy wings" and those little bare feet padded back to her bed. Ever since, she's slept on her own. And she's sleeping better -- and longer -- than ever now that her sleep isn't so regularly interrupted. (Not coincidentally, so are we.)

Or you could try the Tortorices' approach: the universal rule. When Sophia Tortorice, then 1, would wake up in the night, her mom, Carolyn, of Fulshear, Texas, would bring her to their bed to soothe her. The reason? She didn't want to wake their newborn twins, who often woke up anyway and joined the party. This dragged on for years.

About a month before Sophia's fourth birthday, her weary mom and dad knew she was old enough to handle sleeping on her own, but they didn't want to lower the boom suddenly. So they gave Sophia a positive goal.

"We presented it as a worldwide rule that four-year-olds sleep in their own beds because they're big kids," Tortorice says. Then they reminded her every night, and they let the twins hear the rule, too. It worked. This is because most kids really want to be older and more independent, and the desire for this can help them overcome the normal fears they have about sleeping alone.

Bonus: "It even worked for the twins," Tortorice says. There were a few setbacks, but Sophia had internalized the new ground rules, so all they had to do was take her to the bathroom and back to bed.

Refusing to pick up

Most kids are messy. This is because playing with toys is more fun than cleaning them up -- duh! -- and besides, kids like seeing their toys. And when they're really young, they can't understand big tasks like "clean your room."

After years of begging Lucy to "clean up that mess" with no effect, I took to tidying up after her. But that was before I realized I was going about it all wrong. Other moms who've retrained their reluctant cleaners say you have to do two things: get realistic and make it fun.

As part of being realistic, Angela Dowling of Fort Walton Beach, Florida, learned it's a good idea to swap "house beautiful" for "house adequate." Dowling set up and organized shelves and bins for all of her 7-year-old son Kobi's toys and books. And she dictated a one-set-of-toys-at-a-time rule: He has to clean up the first set before moving on to another set. If Kobi ignores her reminders, the toys go into a charity bag. It took only one trip to the Goodwill for Kobi to remember the rule.

It's also worth remembering that young kids don't compute the phrase "clean your room." It's too broad and vague for them to process. When her son Cole was in preschool, Kim Shiflett of Cumming, Georgia, coached him along. "I'd say, 'Take that sippy cup with what looks like cottage cheese in it to the kitchen and dump your toys into that basket.' " Now that he's 9, Cole understands what she means when she says, "Clean your room." And while he does it, she puts her feet up and enjoys a cappuccino.

And fun is key. Raleigh, North Carolina, mom Molly Blanchard gives marbles to her 5-year-old son, Morgan, every time he cleans his room. When the jar is full, he gets to cash them in for a "date with Mom" or another treat. (And, of course, he loses his marbles when he does something that makes his mom lose hers.)

Begging for treats

Megan Oldfield of Danville, Pennsylvania, didn't want to be overly rigid with her daughter, Rainey, 4, so she didn't sweat a regular schedule. She and Rainey ate breakfast when they wanted, got dressed when they wanted, and generally had a good time living the loosey-goosey life. But after Oldfield had baby Lilla, she couldn't address Rainey's desires immediately. With no understanding of her mom's plans and needs, Rainey followed her around the house, begging to watch Barney.

Oldfield got tired of the back-and-forth and devised a morning schedule for Rainey, who now has a routine she must complete -- including eating breakfast and making her bed -- before she gets that precious video. And now that Rainey knows when she's going to watch Barney, she's stopped whining for it. As a bonus, Oldfield scores a 30-minute shower break.

My daughter's kindergarten teacher does something similar. She announces the schedule at the beginning of every day, so the kids know what they're in for, and what they'll get when they complete their work (recess and snack -- woohoo!). With their expectations grounded in a concrete system of routine (and rewards), the kids don't resort to chaos to get what they want. It's what I call a benevolent-dictator strategy, and if it works for 22 kids, it has to work for a family.

Insisting on being carried

Kids who otherwise have bionic legs tend to go boneless when there's a lot of walking to do. Last summer at Disneyland, Lucy decided she was too exhausted to make it back to our hotel. We had just one stroller, and Alice, 18 months, was asleep in it, so my husband and I took turns schlepping Lucy. Despite the transfers, she appeared to be sleeping. When we got to our room, however, Lucy found the energy to bounce on the bed and negotiate a dip in the pool.

She had her reasons for the too-tired act. Like other kids who do this, she probably was worn-out, hungry, and overwhelmed. And she definitely felt jealous of her sister, who got carried more because of her smaller size and greater need. In retrospect, we should have done a better job keeping her fed and we should have built more rest into the day. We also could have bargained with her for a short ride to, for instance, "that sign up ahead."

Or we could have simply offered her an alternative. When Robin Johnson, a veteran Seattle nanny, gets asked for a lift at a bad time, she says, "I'm not strong enough to carry you, sweetie. But I can hold your hand." This gives kids some of the contact they might be craving when they ask to be carried.

We're getting better at this. These days Lucy is able to walk to school, which is more than a mile from our house. And being a benevolent dictator has kept our routine and house in better order with two kids than with one -- something I never would have anticipated.

Even if you crack down on things relatively late in your parenting career, it works because our kids look to us to explain the world to them. Now if only I had a benevolent dictator who'd remind me to stop eating so much that I outgrow my pants. But I'm going to give myself a break on that one.

Martha Brockenbrough's book on grammar, Things That Make Us [Sic], will be published in October.

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