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Be a Take-Charge Mom

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.

Stay detached

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.)