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Make Sure You're Not Raising a Brat

Your 1-year-old loves to sit at the table with you. But he also loves to fling her food and shriek. You:


A. Feed him in the kitchen, with a tarp on the floor. Switch off with your spouse so you each get ten minutes to eat.
B. Teach him how to use a fork and remove him from the table if he yells.
C. Feed him first, but then let him join you.
Answer: C
It's never too early to start socializing your baby. And even though you wouldn't expect a younger child to sit still for long, what you want to show him is that eating together can be a (mostly) pleasant experience.
Of course, to keep it more agreeable for the rest of you, take the edge off by giving him dinner first. Then when you're ready to eat, let him sit at the table with a snack so he can watch how the rest of the family interacts at mealtime.

You're visiting your sister. When she tries to hug your toddler, he yells, "I don't like you! Stop it!" You:

A. Shrug and chalk it up to his being little and not understanding how to act.
B. Punish him with a time-out for talking like that.
C. Apologize to your sister, and then explain to your toddler how you want him to behave.
Answer: C
It's up to you to draw the boundaries of acceptable behavior. A little kid can't control his emotions all of the time, but he should know what you expect of him. If he acts disrespectfully to others, get down to his eye level and explain that, for example, "We don't talk to Aunt Kate like that. She's my sister, and I want you to talk nicely to her." It may also help to prep your child before he gets to a relative's house—especially if you don't see her often. Tell him that she will probably want to cuddle with him.
Everyday life is filled with opportunities to show your child the effects of being civil. What's the underlying lesson? "Manners aren't just about saying the right words at the right time," says Cindy Post Senning, co-director of the Emily Post Institute and coauthor of The Gift of Good Manners. "They're about showing respect for others as well as yourself."

When you and your preschooler run into her teacher, she buries her face in your legs instead of saying hello. All efforts to make her greet her are foiled. You:

A. Apologize and laugh it off. You'll explain how you would like her to behave next time.
B. Insist your daughter say hello, even if you have to pry her off you with a crowbar.
C. Hide from the teacher next time to avoid a repeat.
Answer: A
Even though a 3-year-old is probably old enough to know better, meeting a person as important as her teacher outside the classroom may well be overwhelming. "Some three-year-olds can step out from behind your leg and shake hands with a teacher, and some can't. Don't over-expect," says Senning.
After I was repeatedly getting frustrated with my then toddler when she refused to acknowledge any grown-up (even ones she knew well), my mother set me straight. Annie was a quiet baby, she reminded me; she simply wasn't ready to come out of her shell.
I backed off, introduced her anyway, and stopped expecting her to say hello. Free from pressure, she'd watch me greet people. And that's how it should be. Kids want to know what to expect in a social situation, so demonstrate how you want them to behave. Sure enough, in first grade she introduced herself to her school principal without my prompting.

Your 7-year-old received many gifts at her birthday party, but now she refuses to write thank-you notes, saying it's too hard. You:

A. Agree. It's too much to ask of a kid, and no one will notice that you never sent them.
B. Admit that it's hard but tell her why it's important, and then find the time to do them together.
C. Write them yourself.
Answer: B
This lesson can begin before your child knows her ABC's. A 2-year-old can put a sticker on a card to personalize it; a preschooler can draw a picture and maybe even sign her name. By starting this at an early age, you train your child that writing (or drawing) thank-you notes is as much a part of the party as making the cake and sending out invitations. By the time they're around 12, kids can do this without you by their side (so that you're responsible only for nudging).
As with anything, kids ultimately pattern their behavior on their parents. Try to follow through on your own thank-yous, even a quick e-mail and do it in easy view of your child.

Your 3-year-old has two friends over. She starts eating with her hands, using potty words, and ignoring you. She's just showing off, but what do you do?

A. Threaten to send the kids home if she can't behave. After all, she should know better.
B. Be cool but firm: Restate your rules.
C. Let it slide. There's safety in numbers, and she's feeling her oats with her buddies.
Answer: B
You're the mom, and you set the tone for your household. But don't overreact; nothing reinforces bad behavior like getting angry (hey, it's better than no attention at all). Stay calm and remind your daughter how you want her to behave, in front of her friends: "We don't use those words at the table." She'll readjust her attitude, and her pals will tone it down as well, in the face of your kind authority.
And if they don't? Give a warning that you'll send her to her room while her friends continue to play—and then do it. Afterward, you can discuss your actions with your child, and point it out when you see it in others.
This is a favorite with my kids, for whom egregious behavior (in public) is a vicarious thrill. Annie once went to a party where the birthday girl screamed at her mother because her mom wouldn't let her open presents until after lunch. "What would you do if I did that?" Annie whispered to me.
"I'd send all the guests home with their presents," I said. "And I'd make you write an apology to every one of them for being rude and selfish."
"Well, I'd never do that," she said. "I'm not a spoiled brat."

Your toddler has become such a chatterbox that every phone call compels her to talk louder so you'll pay attention to her. You:

A. Distract her while you're talking, then finish up quickly.
B. Send her to her room. That'll teach her not to interrupt!
C. Excuse yourself from the adult conversation and gently ask the child what she needs.
Answer: A
Learning to take turns talking and not interrupting is something we all have to master at some point. But we also have to know what a toddler is capable of—and waiting until you're finished speaking with someone isn't a possibility for her. Instead, tell your child you'll be talking to this grown-up for a few minutes more and give her a choice of two distractions (any more will confuse her): a snack or coloring, for example.
Don't expect perfection, and keep a sense of humor. Deana Busch of Lake Forest, California, taught her 3-year-old daughter, Julie, to say "Excuse me" before interrupting her. "Now all I get is a loud 'Excuse me, Mommy!'" She employs distraction techniques like a bag of dry cereal for now until Julie's old enough to learn how to wait her turn.

Your preschooler's observations are all too accurate (and loud)—like the time he pointed out a very fat lady. Next time he does it, you:

A. Shush him and pretend it didn't happen.
B. Apologize to the woman in front of your child.
C. Tell your child to keep his comments to himself.
Answer: B and C
Small children are infamous for their truthfulness. When something like this happens, it's best to apologize to the person in question, and tell him you're working with your child on tactfulness. "That's about all you can do this time," says Senning. "But now you have an opportunity to teach her why commenting on people's appearance in front of them isn't polite."
While you're talking, remember to be specific, because what's obvious to us isn't to a young child. For instance, say that everyone looks different and that that's okay—some people are big, others are small; people come in all different skin and hair colors.
When this happened to me, I only followed part of this advice. I was eating out with Jack when he pointed to the back of an old woman's head in the booth next to us. "Mom!" he yelled. "A snowball! Look!" Sure enough, from behind, the lady's puffy white coif looked like a perfect snowball.
Luckily, I don't think she heard him (and I wasn't going to bring it to her attention). As I shushed Jack and reminded him that it's not polite to point, his sandwich came and he forgot the "snowball." But I hope the lesson won't be so easily forgotten.

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