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Choose Your Battles

The gray zone

Many parents report wrestling with their children over constantly shifting issues  -- a battle over clothing choices morphs into a breakfast fight that shifts into resistance over leaving the house  -- and say their kids are clever enough combatants to press when they sense their parents are too weak to resist.

"Especially when there's a new baby sibling, you're so exhausted it's like, 'I know I should send you to your room, but I'm just going to give you the cookie, I'm just going to give in,'" says Jill Goodrich.

But maybe giving in is the smartest tack at that moment. "If you're wiped out, under a lot of stress, that's not the time to hold the line on anything that isn't critically important," says Faull.

In other words: Give yourself and your child a break. You might say something like "We've all had a hard day, so I'm going to say yes to the cookie as a special treat. But usually we don't eat cookies before dinner." And saying the occasional yes can make it easier to say  -- and enforce  -- the customary no.

So what about that little boy in the restaurant who didn't want to wear his mittens? There was a potential health and safety issue  -- it was cold outside  -- but the family's car wasn't far away, so the issue wasn't so clear-cut. And the parents were also under pressure, being in a crowded restaurant with a screaming child  -- a child who was undoubtedly under equal pressure from being cooped up in a toddler-unfriendly establishment.

The parents could have offered the boy the choice of wearing his mittens or being carried to the car so he could keep his hands warm against his mom, though a toddler might not be able to understand that kind of choice and resist both options.

But in this case, "the most logical solution might just have been to say, 'Let's walk outside and see how cold it is, and then you can decide if you want your mittens,'" suggests Kurcinka. "Chances are, if he got cold he'd want to put them on." This is what the mother ended up saying, so the whole thing could have been avoided if she'd simply started out there. The parents lost sight of the fact that in a suburban parking lot the stakes were pretty low.

Even those power struggles without clear-cut solutions offer a chance to show your child how to solve problems, to teach him that you're a family that tackles conflicts and moves on. It's a lesson that's certainly worth at least a few restaurant tantrums.