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How to Discipline a Toddler

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With the help of a host of Facebook moms with in-the-trenches expertise, we share our best tips for toddler taming.

1. No More Meltdowns in Aisle 3

When her son, Nicholas, was 2, Katy Allen of Grayson, GA, had to rotate her grocery shopping between three different stores—to give management enough time to forget the havoc her son had wreaked the last time he strolled their aisles. “You name it, Nick did it,” says Allen, a preschool teacher. “He told the nice seventy-year-old man that the sample he was handing out smelled like dog food, ate a cat treat off the floor, broke a dozen eggs while ‘just helping,’ and spilled a big bag of sugar.” For sure, it ain't pretty. There's the endless bathroom breaks, the “gimmes” in the cereal aisle, the tantrums at checkout. To make shopping trips with your toddler easier:

Get the timing right “About an hour after his nap is perfect. A sleepy kid—or one who's energetic right after a nap—always spells disaster.”

Talk a blue streak “We make it fun and ask our 2 1/2-year-old what he sees. We name the numbers on the aisles and the colors and shapes of the balloons in the store.”

Provide healthy distraction “I give my son an apple the minute we get to the store. He nibbles on that throughout the trip. It's healthy, and I don't feel bad about it.”

Make a special list “I print him his own list with pictures of things we need. He spends the whole time looking for the items and checking them off with his crayon.”

Play grocery games “Sometimes we play catch with the toilet paper or paper towels that we're buying. We drum on the canned goods.”

Hold out hope of a reward “Let them pick out a small snack and carry it throughout the store, knowing they can buy it only if they are good the whole time.”

2. Taking the Misery Out of Mornings

Moms of strong-willed toddlers do more before 8 a.m. than most people do all day. You beg the kids to take off their jammies. You beg them to let you brush their teeth and hair. You beg them to put on their clothes. Toddlers, after all, are notoriously grumpy in the morning and really don't take too kindly to having to surrender to your every demand, especially when you're barking orders like a drill sergeant. The only thing that gets accomplished when this happens is, well, not much. You're angry. Your child's frustrated. And you're still late. To get your toddler on the “let's get dressed without the fuss” bandwagon, choose one of these strategies:

Make it fun “I play peekaboo with kisses. When my son's head pops out of the top of the shirt, he gets a ‘peekaboo!’ and a big kiss. The same for each hand and foot. We get dressed in no time, and he gets a lot of extra love, too.” Or try hide and seek, asking "Where's Lucy's hand?" as you put her arm in a sleeve and then say, "There it is!" when her hand emerges.

Make it a race “If there's someplace we have to be on time, we make it a family race…‘Now go!’ And the laughter begins. Happiness in the morning makes for a good day.”

Be prepared “We bought a hanging basket with ‘Monday’ to ‘Friday’ printed on it. My daughter and I sit down together on Sunday, look at the weather forecast, and pick out her clothes for the entire week. Then when she gets up, she gets dressed.”

Try something creative “I made flip cards with morning jobs for my son to flip once he's done that job: brush teeth, wash face, get dressed, make bed. Once the cards are all flipped and I can see a row of check marks, he can go downstairs and get himself a muffin.”

Sing it “We have a special ‘getting dressed’ song: Get dressed, get dressed, everybody, everywhere!” You can also try singing the hokeypokey song: "You put your right foot in...you put your left foot in...you shake it all about..."

Offer choices “I let my daughter pick out her clothes the night before, and then tell her she did a very good job. If she puts pants or a shirt on backward, I don't make a big deal of it but offer to help her put it on the right way.”

3. Hair-Raising and Teeth-Brushing Strategies

Even toddlers with “easy” hair may hate the washing routine, since it might mean they'll have a face-full of water that can make them feel like they're drowning; soapy, stinging eyes; and the tragic inability to play with bath toys while their head is tilted back for rinsing. And even though teeth don't get tangled, many kids hate brushing their teeth—or having them brushed—too. To make toddler hygiene and hair care more bearable for you both, try these tips:

Make it a teachable moment “I told my daughter that food gets on her teeth just like it gets on the dishes we use. I asked her if she wanted to eat off dirty dishes, which she said was gross. Then I asked her why she wanted gross dirty teeth in her mouth. Worked!”

Make it an adventure “My son loves it when I find animals in his teeth: ‘Oh look, there's a tiger! Why are you on Cody's mouth, you crazy tiger? Get out of there!’ He's almost three, and it works every time.”

Offer a reward “For bathtime my daughter loves to play with her toys in the tub, but she knows she can't play with her toys until she's all clean and her hair is washed.”

Get silly “We make up silly songs about brushing teeth, washing hair, and so on. It makes my son crack up and want to do it to hear the songs.”

Get crafty “I made a Morning Book and a Bedtime Book that have pictures of my daughter doing the things that need to be done to get ready for the day and for bedtime. It's the books that are telling her what needs to be done, and not me, so there are fewer struggles.”

Give it a grown-up spin “I put my daughter's shampoos, conditioners, and other hair products in a carrying case so she feels like she's got her own personal styling kit.”

4. Serving Up Civilized Meals

Ashley and Chris Klein, Bradenton, FL, parents of 3-year-old Gavin, both grew up in households where sitting down together as a family for dinner was considered important. So when they had a child of their own, they promised themselves they'd carry on that tradition. Unfortunately, their son had other ideas. Gavin was distracted—just like every other toddler, most of whom have attention spans that move from one thing to another faster than a flea in a dog pound. Why sit at the table when there are toys to play with, stairs to climb, and laps to run around the kitchen table? What finally worked for the Kleins was letting Gavin “help” with dinner prep. “The more we have Gavin involved in the process, the more successful we are at the table,” says Ashley, who lets Gavin mix the ingredients for salads. She also encourages him to choose the evening's vegetable. More mealtime maneuvers:

Make it festive “We always have music and candlelight at dinner, and we turn on a bubble machine. Dinner is a special occasion, and a time when we sing our son's praises for being a great boy all day.”

Make sure they're hungry “We hold snacks off about an hour before dinner so they'll be hungry. Sometimes they eat a little bit, then leave. They don't have long attention spans—no toddler does. We turn off the TV, and if they're still hungry they have to come back and finish dinner. No snacks or treats until it's done.”

Involve even little kids in dinner conversation “We sit together and I keep him sitting by talking to him. We ask how his day was, who he played with at daycare, what he wants to do that evening, etc. The more we talk, the less distracted he is by other things.”

Provide table entertainment “A big white roll of butcher paper. They doodle, you eat—voilà!”

Get them in the mood “I get my son excited about dinnertime. I let him watch me put his plate together first, then I run—literally—over to his highchair and strap him in. Then I dance with his plate over to him. He loves it!”

Choices, of course “My toddler enjoys dinner with the family every night. He likes to feel included, so I pick out two different things for dinner and let him decide which one he would like. He feels like a big boy.”

Change the game The next time your little one deliberately spills food or throws utensils, leave the dropped food or item on the floor to convey to your tot the game is over. When there is no one to play with, she'll soon change the game. It's important to remember your baby isn't trying to be defiant. She simply wants to play and interact with you. If you don't want to play fetch with the sippy cup, get her out of the highchair and play with real toys. Even a couple minutes of fun will get your child to the point where she's readfy to sit and eat. Or leave the sippy cup o nthe floor and say, "bye-bye, cup."

5. Managing Outbursts Any Time of Day

The mood to behave badly can strike at any moment. Make sure you're prepared for biting, screaming and general mischief.

Distract and disarm Curious babies are alwas looking for things to pull, push, grab, drop and throw, whether it's your cell phone or the hot oven door. Instead of the incessant "No, no, no!" (which just plants that word into your baby's budding vocabulary), give a personal "Not for Tyler." It's important to show your baby what is off limits and what is hers at the same time.

Block your ears Babies are amazed at the shock power of their little voices. Imagine a tiny baby getting a room full of adults to stop and stare--that's power! As a survivor of the screech-and-scream stage, Dr. Sears' ears are still ringing. He muted his litle screamer, Matthew, by making a house rule: "Matthew, only scream on the grass." When his scream was about to erupt, we would usher him outside, and into the wind his screeches went. You can also walk away from the whining and say, "When you can talk in your nice voice, Mommy will listen." Once your loudmouth has the words to expess his needs, that "nice voice" you long for will soon appear.

Show and tell Your baby has not yet developed the words to convey his emotions, so his early biting and hitting are often playful communications. Demonstrate how you "pet" and "be gentle" with your hand. Say, "We kiss your brother," "We pet the kitty" or "We hug our friend." If he's lashing out due to frustration, help him with whatever he was trying to do, and verbalize his anger: "When you can't do it, you get mad." He may not understand the words yetm but he'll hear your tone and adapt to your good example.

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