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Clever Solutions for Bad Habits

At age 4, my son A.J. was completely potty trained. Not that he went to the bathroom willingly, however. He would dance, shuffle, cross his legs, and wait until the last possible second. One Saturday afternoon, we were getting ready to run errands and A.J. was in full procrastination mode, bobbing up and down like a mad cork. I launched into my usual "Time to go to the potty, honey" speech, with no success. Then my husband looked A.J. straight in the eye and said, "I'll give you a dollar if you go to the bathroom right now." A.J. stopped cold. He eyeballed Tony to see if he was for real. My husband started to draw a crisp bill out of his pocket, and A.J. took off.

I was appalled. "You're going to teach him to expect money every time he pees," I said. "Do you know what sort of precedent you're setting here?" Tony just shrugged and said, "Let's see what happens." What happened was this: That dollar was the best money we ever spent. From that day on, A.J. had a new attitude about the bathroom: Why avoid it? You never know what fun you might have! I'm not actually sure I'd use the same tactic again, but I did learn this: Sometimes the ever-evolving process of parenting requires us to toss out the handbook and get creative. Experiment -- sometimes it really pays off!

 

Mealtime mayhem

Kemi Chavez used to get frustrated when her toddler, Olivia, refused to try healthy foods. "She wouldn't eat broccoli, peaches, beef, or anything with an unusual smell," says Chavez. The Denver mom happened on her solution almost by chance. "One day I just gave up and let her pick her food from my plate. It seemed ridiculous, but it worked." So Olivia was "served" every meal from Mom's plate for months and became a much more adventurous eater. "She even likes Thai food now," says Chavez.

In the preschool years, the dinner table can turn into an absolute war zone -- unnecessarily so. I used to fight epic battles with A.J. about our "no sugary cereal" rule. He had sampled Lucky Charms and Froot Loops at various social events and relentlessly pestered me for them at the grocery store. Finally, I gave in and bought him a box, with one caveat: You can eat it, but only as dessert. (With the added vitamins and minerals, I figured the cereal would be healthier than candy.) In a similar burst of "Why not?" thinking, a friend of mine enticed her preschool-age twins to eat brussels sprouts by bringing the hamster cage over to the table and feeding the vegetable to the furry creature. Fascinated, the kids decided to try what their pet was eating. (It turns out that one of them, now 10, is still a brussels sprouts fan.)

Too many dinnertime rules can also lead to frustration for everyone, and some loosening up rarely hurts. (Face it: Your kids probably won't be dining at a White House state dinner anytime soon, so if their eating habits are a bit eccentric, so be it.) Tammy Burk of Charlottesville, Virginia, got tired of telling her children to sit properly in their seats during dinner. "I made a new rule," she says. "If they don't want to sit down, that's okay. But they have to stand at the table and eat instead of running around." Likewise, Abby Carr of New York City grew increasingly frustrated with her 3-year-old's demands at the table. "Stephen used to bark out orders like 'More juice!'" she says. "So we told him we'd listen only if he used good manners and spoke in a French accent. Now he says, 'Sir, may I puh-leeze have more joooce?'"

Diaper disasters

Who hasn't had one? Hulya Migliorino of Bloomingdale, New Jersey, kept finding her 2-year-old soaked in the morning, despite the superabsorbent diaper she wore. Then one night, Migliorino had a little brainstorm: "I started putting a maxi-pad across the top of her diaper by the waistband. She sleeps on her tummy with her tushie up in the air, so the pad catches all the excess pee."

In a similar vein, Paula Goodnight, a mom of three from Maine-ville, Ohio, had a difficult time keeping diapers on her 15-month-old daughter, Amelia, who gleefully disrobed at every opportunity. Goodnight found the solution in the handyman's best friend: duct tape. "I would put a strip across her diaper, securing the two tabs," she says. "She couldn't pry the duct tape off and eventually quit trying." The only downside? "I got some awfully strange looks when I'd change her in a public restroom!"

 

Potty trouble

Potty training pretty much requires creative thinking at every turn. Sally Kolodziej of Chippewa Township, Pennsylvania, was having trouble getting her 3-year-old son, David, to do anything more than pee in the potty. "I noticed that he was going in his Pull-Ups in the same place every day, near a trunk in our living room. So I said, 'Why don't we move your potty behind the trunk? It can be your secret potty.' " David was impressed with the idea and used the "secret potty" the very next day. "We had tried to bribe him with everything under the sun for months, so this felt close to a miracle," says Kolodziej. "I wasn't thrilled about him pooping in the living room, but that was temporary." After a couple of months, David's secret potty migrated to the bathroom with little fanfare.

Never underestimate the power of bathroom humor when toilet training, either. My son A.J. (the procrastinator) has always responded well to an audience. Somewhere between 2 and 3, he developed several "potty dances" that, I'm almost ashamed to admit, we encouraged. There was the "pee dance," the "poop dance," and even the "gas dance." Each one had a different arrangement of flailing arms and stomping feet, each brought the house down with laughter -- and he was encouraged to "perform" in the bathroom for even more applause.

Monsters in the closet

To your child, that monster is real, so no amount of "There aren't any monsters, honey" is going to convince him his bedroom is safe. When A.J. was 6, he began worrying about bad guys from videos or books coming to get him at bedtime. So I started telling funny stories to keep them away. The premise: Picture the mean guy doing something so ridiculous it makes you laugh; in the process, you totally defuse his power. For instance, I made up a story in which a monster has to enter a hula-hoop contest. He loses because his multiple arms get in the way, and he falls over, completely embarrassed. Silly, yes. Effective? Strangely so. Once I got A.J. smiling, he could relax and settle down.

Or you can use a real-life prop. When her 5-year-old daughter, Lauren, got worried about monsters in her room, Hulya Migliorino tried reasoning with her, to no avail. "Finally, I started spraying air freshener into the room," she says. "I told her that monsters don't like houses that smell nice, only houses that smell stinky. It's become a nightly habit." Other ways to banish the nighttime beasts: a song that scares them away, a monster-repelling curtain in the window, or a stern phone call from you to the monster mommies.

 

Goodbye, paci

Letting go of a lovey can be traumatic -- unless you hit on just the right thing to say. Carolina Fernandez, author of Rocket Mom! and a mom in Ridgefield, Connecticut, had visions of her 3-year-old son, Nick, taking his pacifier to kindergarten. "Finally, I told him it had to go to a really poor baby who couldn't afford one," she says. "He took it out of his mouth immediately, handed it over, and said, 'Give this to the poor child.' " Fernandez was stunned, especially when the pacifier didn't turn out to be an issue in the weeks that followed. "I couldn't believe it. We had fought over this for ages, and it was done in less than a minute." For your kid, the turning point might be something else (when you point out that, say, pirates don't use pacifiers), so it can pay to just spout whatever pops into your head! If you need some inspiration (like how to convince your kid to tie his beloved to a helium balloon, and more), check out these tips.

Abby Carr's son has a tendency to get attached to less-than-desirable objects, like his old Pooh toothbrush with splayed-out bristles. "To ease the parting, we put the object in a 'special box' and have a little ceremony," says Carr. "He knows he can go back and visit it every now and then."

Multipurpose solutions

1. Invoke an outside authority

Toddlers and preschoolers are often more willing to listen to someone other than Mom or Dad. Nanci Schwartz of Fruitland Park, Florida, summons up her father-in-law, a pharmacist, as the ultimate authority on a variety of subjects, from 3-year-old Cadi needing to take her medicine to her giving up her nighttime bottle. "She accepts anything if we tell her that Poppy says so," Schwartz says. The magic authority figure in Melia Wilkinson's Baltimore home is a dog. "Snickers, our Husky, is the cure for anything," says Wilkinson. "If we're in the car and Casey starts to fuss, I say, 'We're going home to see Snickers,' and she calms down."

2. Warn, then follow through

When my daughter Mathilda was 4, I couldn't get her to pick up her toys. No matter how much I hounded, or sang "Clean up, clean up, everybody, everywhere," she had no interest in doing her share. Finally, I got out a garbage bag and said, "Any toys on the floor at bedtime are going in the trash." And then I scooped up all the toys scattered in the living room that night and put them in the basement. (I wasn't foolhardy enough to throw away hundreds of dollars worth of the Fisher-Price family -- but she didn't know that. When I brought them back out a few months later, she'd forgotten the details and it was a very happy reunion.)

3. Point out the rules

When you write down some house rules, you may be amazed at how little you have to say. When Abby Carr tried to discipline her 2- year-old, Lila, "sometimes she would just giggle," she says. So even though Lila was too young to read, Carr put up a sign in her room that said, "No Pushing, No Biting, No Kicking, No Spitting." "When she misbehaves, we go and point to the sign and she tells us what's on it -- it seems to get through to her." To serve up a positive message, Carr added a new sign next to the old one. "It lists things she should do: 'Please Play, Laugh, Dance, Sing, and Jump!' " Good words for all of us to follow.

Charlotte Latvala, a mom of three, writes a weekly parenting column for the Beaver County Times in western Pennsylvania.

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