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How to Choose Your Battles

If you're a parent, you're tired. While one might be childless and tired -- after, say, a day of shoe shopping (not that I miss having the time and money for such frivolity or anything) -- having kids means being tired all the time, not just for a few hours after that trip to the mall.

And when you're tired (which is always; see above), and the kids are, you know, provoking you, and it's only 7:30 in the morning and you've got miles to go before you sleep, you're inevitably going to have to make some executive decisions regarding which battles to engage in and which to concede. Do you let the 5-year-old wear her Barbie nightie to day camp, or do you bar the door until she puts on shorts and a T-shirt? Should you point out to the 11-year-old that there's no way he took a shower (as he claims), or do you pretend not to notice the black crescents under his fingernails that tell a different story? After all, you have only a certain amount of time, energy, and patience, and you can't afford to blow it on stuff that doesn't really matter.

If giving in sounds like a cop-out, believe you me, it's not. In fact (and here's the part where we tell you that what's easier for you is actually good for your kids), when they see you work out what's really important, they learn how to work out for themselves what's really important. It's a win-win. You get to save your breath and what's left of your energy, and your children get a lesson in what it means to be a reasonable person.

Kristen Arnold, a mother of four in Westboro, MA, recalls a dinner at which her 7-year-old asked for two forks, one for his rice and one for his meat. Her husband's feeling was "you have to adapt -- everyone gets one fork," she says. Arnold, however, saw infinite value in avoiding a 45-minute tantrum that would spoil the meal. She and her husband discussed it calmly at the table, weighing the pros and cons. In the end, Arnold won out, and all the kids got a good lesson in considering all sides of a conflict and listening to others respectfully. "Now they'll come back to me and negotiate," she says.

"You want to be a positive force in the way your children look at life, so work out a deal whenever possible," says Paul Fink, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at Temple University School of Medicine, in Philadelphia. If you don't, a smart kid will look for a way around you, which will likely involve secrecy or lies. Besides, choosing not to engage in every little skirmish means fewer arguments, plain and simple.

What's often tricky, of course, is figuring out the "is this worth fighting for?" part -- especially if you've got to think fast. For starters, it's important to note that there are certain developmental stages at which kids naturally assert their need for independence and individuality (say, by dressing like a circus freak). It helps to view the push-back as less about defying you and more about saying "I gotta be me!" says Bonnie Maslin, Ph.D., a psychologist in private practice in New York City and the author of Picking Your Battles.

For help with those times when, say, a crabby kiddie simply isn't in the mood to cooperate, or when you feel strongly that a child do/eat/wear something that said child feels equally strongly that he should not have to do/eat/wear, we got the advice of parents who've done several tours of duty.