At a birthday party for one of the toddlers in my daughter's playgroup, Miranda, then 2, would have won the prize for unhappiest guest. It was a beautiful day; the other kids were running through the sprinkler and finger-painting. But Miranda spent the afternoon with her arms wrapped around my thigh, refusing to budge even for cake and ice cream.
When the party ended, I was annoyed -- and then guilty for feeling that way. Of course, by the time we got home, my daughter was her usual outgoing self again. So why had she acted like an extension of my leg all day?
Clinginess may not be a major behavioral problem, but it's certainly one of those little things -- like picky eating or whining -- that can drive you absolutely nuts. Here are ways to keep your sense of perspective (and maybe even humor) as you deal with them.
Barbara Price, a mom of two in Scarborough, Maine, says her daughter, Ainsley, was born clingy. "She constantly wanted to be held and cried when I put her down," says Price. And, like my daughter at that age, Ainsley always stuck close to her mom at the mommy-toddler playgroup.
Why they do it: Young kids have different temperaments, just like grown-ups. Some are more sociable, while others take a while to adjust to new people. When your child is in a new situation or even just cranky, clinginess is his way to communicate his uneasy feelings. And since you give him a sense of comfort, having you nearby reassures him that he's safe.
Kids are also very good at reading body language, says Lynn Arner-Cross, a mom of three and a specialist in Child Care Services for the city of Davis, California. If your baby senses that she's losing your attention, she may feel less connected to you and begin to cling.
How to deal: When your child's attached to you like Velcro, don't try to forcibly pry him off: That will make him even clingier. Instead, let him stay as close as he wants to for about ten minutes, and then gradually separate, says Arner-Cross. Sit near him, talk to him, play with him -- but don't hold him. After a while, move farther away (but stay in the same room). And don't leave without saying goodbye: It'll help him understand that you'll return.
Rosemary Black, a mom of six, is the author of two cookbooks, including The Kids Holiday Cookbook.
WhiningWhen Susie Angiolillo, a mom of two from Elmsford, New York, told her kids they couldn't have any cookies before dinner, her daughter Stevielynn, then 3, started pleading, dragging out each word as if it was one long monosyllable.
"It was the last thing I needed to deal with while trying to get dinner on the table," says Angiolillo.
Why they do it: Don't take it personally: For kids, whining is a natural response to feeling tired or frustrated, or needing attention (which doesn't make it any easier to listen to!). It can also be a sign that they want something but aren't sure how to get it.
How to deal: As tempting as it is to give your preschooler what she wants in order to get her to quit whining, don't -- it'll just reinforce the idea that whining works. Instead, try Angiolillo's tactic: "I ask my daughter, 'Does Mommy like whining? How do you ask for a snack?' and that's usually enough to get her to ask in a normal voice."
Arner-Cross agrees that you need to model the kind of tone you expect from your child. Phrases like "You talk so well, but I can't understand you when you whine" or "Wow, that really hurts my ears" work better than just saying "Use your words." It's also important to make sure your child knows what "asking nicely" means. Show her what you mean, and praise her when she does ask politely.
My son Kevin was 4 when he perfected the art of tattling on his 6-year-old sister, Karla. He filled me in on every errant deed, however small, that she'd committed during the day. She didn't brush her teeth! She hid her broccoli under the rug! She didn't make her bed! I marveled at how he could recite each one of them when I got home from work.
Why they do it: Sibs often tattle to get your attention, says Julie Riess, Ph.D., a mom of three and the director of Wimpfheimer Nursery School at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. But they're also developing their sense of right and wrong, so they may get upset when they see that a rule has been broken.
How to deal: It's important to set a rule for your little tattler: If no one is getting hurt or doing something dangerous, tell him you'll take care of the problem -- it's your job, not his, to monitor who's breaking the rules. You can also cut down on sibling spats in general by making sure that each child has some separate space, even just a corner where he can put the belongings that he doesn't have to share.
It was an all-too-common mealtime routine when my oldest daughter, Miranda, was a toddler. I'd prepare a meal she'd loved the previous week, and she'd heave it off her high-chair tray. I threatened, bribed, and cajoled, but nothing worked. Miranda still picked at her food, and I started feeling more and more like a short-order cook -- besides constantly worrying about her health.
Why they do it: Kids are naturally picky eaters. As they become more aware of the world around them, they crave the routine of familiar comfort foods and don't usually like trying anything new. It can also be a way to defy you. "This is one of the only areas where your child has total control," says Evonne Weinhaus, a therapist in St. Louis and the coauthor of Stop Struggling With Your Child. "If you push kids to eat something, they'll probably reject those foods just so they can enjoy watching your reaction."
How to deal: You can try getting your child involved in helping you prepare food -- toddlers can wash vegetables, for example, or sprinkle cheese on top of pasta. To avoid power struggles at the table, try to refrain from comments. Also, set a timer and after 20 minutes, end the meal, regardless of how much your child has eaten. If she's hungry later, let her have a healthy snack. On a low shelf that everyone can reach, I keep raisins, granola bars, puddings, and whole-grain cereals; my children know they can grab something anytime.
Jane Powers of Scarborough, Maine, lets her three kids, 13, 11, and 5, have a small serving of dessert with the family -- even when they don't eat their dinner. But if one of them gets hungry later on, the only option is the unfinished meal that Powers keeps in the refrigerator.
Avoiding ChoresWhen Dylan Price was 5, he refused to put away his toys, and his mom, Barbara, hated feeling like a nag. "I was constantly annoyed that the house was a mess," she says, "but I didn't just want to pick everything up myself. I wanted Dylan to learn that he needed to clean up his own mess."
Why they do it: No mystery here -- does anyone really enjoy doing chores?
How to deal: Put a large box in the garage or basement, or any inconvenient place -- anything that's left out after you've asked your kids to clean up goes into the box for a couple of days. "This gives you the chance to straighten up, and it'll teach your child that if he doesn't put away his playthings there will be consequences," says Weinhaus.
When my three oldest were preschoolers, they looked forward to bedtime stories. But I was so exhausted after a long day that by 8 o'clock, I couldn't face reading to them and putting away all of their stuff. So I built toy cleanup into our routine: Everything had to be put away before the books were chosen. It worked -- and I began enjoying our evenings together no matter how tiring my day had been.
After my teenage nephew spent a weekend with us and every now and then used a swearword, my daughter Madeline, then 4, began to imitate him. My older kids thought it was hilarious and snickered each time she came out with a bad word.
Why they do it: Like Madeline, kids typically hear obscenities from someone in their world -- a parent, an older sibling, or a caregiver -- and may use bad language to get attention or as a way of getting a rise out of you. Your child may also think it's an acceptable way to express her frustration. (No need to wonder where she learned that!)
How to deal: "If you let it go completely, your child may get the feeling that it's okay," says Riess. "But you also don't want to make a huge deal out of it, or she'll repeat the cussword to get attention." Just tell her to go to her room and swear all she wants there; she'll probably discover it's not so much fun when there's no one around to listen.
The first thing I did was ask my other kids not to laugh when Madeline tried out her new vocabulary. Then I told her that swearwords can hurt other people's feelings. Madeline went back to using words like "dummy" once the thrill of her older siblings' attention had stopped. And when I have an exasperatingly slow driver in front of me, I try to remember that I have an audience with a parrotlike skill for repeating whatever I say!