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The Bright Side of Bad Behavior

I'm ashamed to admit that I once lost my 4-year-old in JCPenney. One minute I was looking through the racks and Matilda was hiding in the middle of them, and the next I was hysterically asking the checkout woman to make everyone in the store help me find my little girl.

We found her just outside the front door, staring at her shoes, refusing to acknowledge the gathering crowd.

I threw my arms around her and sobbed with relief.

Unfortunately, the story does not end there. Matilda was confused and very worried about her weepy mommy. "It's okay," she said, her own eyes welling up and her voice shaking. "Look. I got you a present." And with half a dozen store employees looking on, my daughter reached into her pocket and pulled out a beaded bracelet, complete with sales tags, which she'd thoughtfully shoplifted for me while we were apart.

I guess I'd forgotten, in all the excitement, that we were still going through that little taking-things-that-don't-belong-to-us phase. Blushing, I handed the bracelet to one of the staffers who had dropped everything to help, muttered, "I'm very sorry," and "Thank you," scooped up Matilda, and hustled to the car.

The paralyzing fear of losing my child changed my perspective on her behavior that day. I was so grateful to see her safe and sound that my first instinct when I saw that bracelet in her hand wasn't "What a little thief" but "Aw, she stole that for me."

Sometimes it takes a little imagination (or a big dose of adrenaline) to be able to look at the bright side of bad behavior. But in many cases, the naughty, troublesome things our toddlers and preschoolers do demonstrate that they've hit a new ability or understanding and are showing it off  -- inappropriately, but showing it off all the same. While you still have to take action when your child misbehaves, there are plenty of good reasons to take heart, whether she's getting aggressive at a playdate or lying through her teeth about who spilled the juice.

Misdirected Decorating
The bad behavior: Cara Dell'Apa, 3, is the queen of the misplaced masterpiece. She has painted the bathroom mirror with hand cream, colored the kitchen wall with markers, and experimented with the mixed-media collage potential of talcum powder ground by hand into an Oriental rug. She does these things with no ill will, just a curiosity that gets the better of her time and time again.

At 2, 3, and even 4, many kids are old enough to get a thrill out of creating something with art supplies (and I use the term loosely enough to include hand cream and talcum powder) but not mature enough to consistently remember and heed the rules about where such art projects are supposed to take place.

The bright side: Though she sometimes gets frustrated with her daughter's behavior, Lisette Dell'Apa of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, knows exactly where that kind of expression comes from: She herself is an interior decorator, constantly rearranging and redecorating her own house when she's not working on someone else's. "You can really see Cara's desire to create and accomplish something, but it's not like she can go rearrange the family room to satisfy it," Dell'Apa says. Her behavior shows that she already has energy and creativity in spades  -- just like her mom.

How to handle it: Make sure she has plenty of mom-approved opportunities to color, paint, and get her fingers good and dirty in her everyday life. Dell'Apa chooses toys and playthings that allow Cara to explore textures and colors, including hands-on, nitty-gritty kitchen activities.

When you catch your preschooler coloring on the walls or furniture, be sure you get her to help clean up the mess she's made. Having to deal with the consequences of misplaced art is eventually enough to make most kids decide it isn't worth the trouble.

Jana Murphy, a mom of 3 and an aunt of 25, is the author of The Secret Lives of Toddlers.