Who's in charge? That would be the two kids pawing through the videos on the low shelf in the children's section.
Although it took me an inordinately long time to catch on, I finally figured out that "okay?" needed to be deleted from my vocabulary. With a one-word change in my communication style, I took a stab at becoming a take-charge parent -- the kind of mom who isn't bogged down in a half-hour conversation with a toddler about which socks to wear.
Why is it so hard to take charge of these small beings? Every mom who lets her children run her ragged has her own story. In this age where psychologists emphasize the impact we have on our kids' brains and self-esteem, we want to get it right. At the same time, we may not want to use the parenting styles we were raised with -- I sure don't want to be the yeller my mom was -- but it's easy to get confused about what's a reasonable amount of accommodation for a three-foot-tall human. Compounding the situation are toy commercials and TV shows that encourage kids to be surly and demanding. The result can be a drag: kids who rule the roost.
When you set reasonable limits and teach kids to respect authority, there's a big payoff in academic achievement as well. Studies show that self-discipline -- the ability to delay gratification -- is a greater predictor of academic success than intelligence. This all sounds good, but how could I morph into a mom who's consistently decisive, calm, and firmly in charge? My twins aren't 2 anymore -- they're moving up the ladder in elementary school -- but it's still a struggle for me to maintain my role as alpha mom. In my quest for answers, I talked to parents who'd once been mired in endless negotiations and fruitless begging but had changed course. Their take-charge strategies:
End the discussion
We think we're having a conversation with a 2-year-old about the philosophical importance of leaving the house on time. Quite possibly, the kid doesn't have any idea what we're talking about. All she knows is that we're still in the house, which means she's winning. Sometimes, actions really do speak louder than words.
"Before, I used to negotiate," says Carla Ring, mom of Kaia, 3, and Dylan, 2, in Novato, California. "The things I'd been reading said you need to give your child the decision-making power." This sounded good in the books, but letting Kaia figure out her fashion statement soon became a morning marathon. "You can spend hours sitting there saying, 'What do you want to wear?' " says Ring. "You try to give them independence, but then they walk all over you."
Ring's moment of truth came the day she was late leaving the house because Kaia was paralyzed by her fashion options. It was time to end the discussion about what to wear. She warned Kaia that there was now going to be a time limit on choosing. "If you don't decide," she tells her daughter, "I'm going to decide, and you're going to put it on and we're going to go." She's been known to lift up her daughter and carry her out, but the screams of protest don't last long.
I'm too much of a softie to carry out a screaming child. But now I set the kitchen timer for two minutes, and if my daughter, Claire, can't choose her outfit by then, she owes me a quarter from her allowance. It works.
Julie Malenda of Elkhart, Indiana, read that it was important to respond to her 2-year-old, Joseph, with the same tone and level of intensity that he was using, so he would feel understood. When Joseph begged to go outside at a time when they had to be inside, she poured on the empathy. "You really want to go outside," she said. "Yeah!" he yelled. "I'd like to go outside, too!" she said. "Yeah! Yeah!" Joseph yelled. Thinking she was agreeing, he got revved up and began to chant, "Side, side, side!" meaning "outside." She tried to talk him down by explaining that they could go outside later, but that concept didn't compute.
The next time the begging began, Malenda was ready. A teacher, she put herself in her professional role and came up with a phrase that stunned me with its brilliance: "What would I do if this was someone else's child?" "Sometimes now, I ignore it," she says of his "side, side, side" chant. "I've also told him 'We're not going outside now. I've answered the question.' "
When it comes to being around other people's kids, it's easy for me to see bad behavior for what it is -- unacceptable -- and not try to explain it away. I hate to admit it, but when I saw my son, Andrew, climbing up a display at the supermarket, I had a moment of thinking, Wow, he really likes to climb. Maybe it's okay if he climbs on the lower shelves. I looked at the mom beside me, who regarded him with horror, and I took action: "Get down!"
Make a policy
Transitions from preschool to the car weren't going very well for Mary McMurtrey of University City, Missouri, and her 5-year-old daughter, Sophia. Sometimes Sophia was having so much fun that she didn't want to leave. Other times, she'd question why she needed to get picked up at that exact moment. "I'd say, 'We need to go to Grandma's,' and she'd say, 'But I don't want to,' " says McMurtrey. "It was like going down the rabbit hole as a parent. The next thing you know, it's a power struggle and, frankly, the parent never wins. Kids have a lot of brainpower to give to the situation and we usually have half our brain."
She shifted her strategy. Explanations for why Sophia had to do things -- leave a party, go to bed -- became framed as a family policy of "that's what we do." At a recent sticky transition leaving a birthday party, Sophia complained that other kids were allowed to stay, so why did she have to leave? "I told her, 'Our family goes to bed at eight o'clock. That's what we do,' " says McMurtrey, and Sophia left quietly.
This approach removes the personal element from the argument. When Andrew acts up, I say, "In our family, kids aren't allowed to speak to adults that way." (And sometimes it even works.)
Stop being a servant
Adella Mousseau of Penn Hills, Pennsylvania, mom of 7-year-old Anastasia, admits she spent years "doing everything" for her daughter: getting her dressed, fetching her what she wanted, brushing her hair, begging her to lie down for a nap. "It made my husband really frustrated," she says.
A few months ago, she had a new baby and decided it was time to change the way she dealt with her daughter. "I gave her more responsibility," she says, including having Anastasia get dressed by herself, fetch her own cup, and participate in after-dinner cleanup. To help her make the transition from princess to family member, Mousseau gives her a sticker when she dresses herself and pays her a quarter for doing certain chores. These rewards motivate her daughter, who seems to like her newfound independence.
As embarrassing as it sounds, I can relate to Mousseau's servitude. Weirdly, I brushed Claire's teeth for her when she was, let's just say, old enough to have a diploma from preschool. Finally it got too absurd, and I quit. "This is what children do," I told her. "They brush their own teeth." One of us had to grow up, and I decided it would be me.
"She was a hard baby who wasn't sleeping a lot," says Sara Hendrickson of Duluth, Minnesota, about her daughter, Greta. Colic, acid reflux, and a milk allergy made Greta unhappy and her parents desperate. "We were in the frame of mind of doing anything we could to make her comfortable and happy."
Greta is 2 now, with no acid reflux, but she's figured out that a little fussing can get her what she wants. "She's learned to work us," says her mom, who's retraining herself not to jump up to eliminate every complaint. Now when Greta's upset because she wants her brother's Star Wars figures, Hendrickson doesn't rush in. "We have to step back and say, yes, she can cry a little bit," she explains.
Hearing my kids cry was tough for me. When Andrew was 18 months, he sobbed bitterly when I took a sharp-edged metal car out of his hands. A nearby dad said, "It's okay if he cries." This was news to me. In some convoluted way, I'd felt that crying meant I'd failed as a mom. Over time, I learned: Crying happens, it passes, and then we're on to another emotion.
Give them respect
If there's one thing I notice about a lot of moms with well-behaved kids, it's that they don't insult their children. Demeaning kids can create temporary compliance (it worked for my parents), but take it from me, it doesn't make for a great relationship. Here's what kids learn from being disrespected: I don't matter. How do kids behave when they don't matter? Poorly. The solution is to let them know that they do matter.
A good way to do that: Pay attention to them. Abram Isaacs of Minneapolis, father of 3-year-old Yasemin, makes an observation that is wildly obvious and yet one that I often ignore. "Those times when I'm distracted, when the phone rings, things don't work out well," he says of the daily challenges of getting Yasemin out the door, to the park, and back home. "If I can focus on her, it works."
Many were the times when I wished my kids would miraculously behave without any involvement on my part. Wishing, however, is not a take-charge strategy. What I've learned: Kids who tend to be well-behaved usually have parents who are involved with them. So now, instead of dragging Claire to Andrew's soccer game and expecting her to entertain herself while I chat with other moms and dads, I bring art supplies and a blanket. On one level, this planning is more work. But in the long run, a little bit of attention has a big payoff: Her behavior improves.
So, have I transformed my parenting style? Am I a take-charge mom? In my humble opinion, I've made a lot of progress. The tip that helps me the most is to stay detached. Sometimes I try to pull myself out of the heat of the moment (Claire: "I can't get up! I'm too tired!") and imagine how this scene would look if I were watching it on video. Old me: I guess I could let her sleep until the last possible moment. New me: This child needs to get to bed earlier, but for today, she needs to get up on time. Firmly, and gently, I tell her that she needs to get up in five minutes. As I set the timer, I feel remarkably, wonderfully like an adult -- a mom who knows what she's doing, at least for right now.
Jane Meredith Adams is a contributing editor at Parenting.