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The Secret to Your Crazy, Adorable Toddler

Delaying Gratification

Waiting isn't easy for any of us, but it can be excruciating for an 18-month-old, whose centers of emotional control -- the frontal brain lobes -- are just developing. Kate McFadden of Los Angeles was driving with her daughter, Olivia, 2, when they had this conversation:

Olivia: "I'm thirsty."

Mom: "I don't have any water."

Olivia: "I'm thirsty."

Mom: "I don't have any water."

And so on.

The dialogue was, from Olivia's point of view, almost existential in its implications: Where does a water bottle come from? Why can't it just appear in Mom's bag? Why do I have to wait for what I want? From McFadden's perspective, the dialogue was merely frustrating.

Next time, she might be able to redirect her daughter's chanting requests. While toddlers have biology working against them, distracting them can make waiting easier. Toss her a different toy, whip out a book, turn on the radio -- anything to get her mind off her inability to understand why she can't have exactly what she wants when she wants it.

Imposing consequences won't work until most toddlers are at least 2 ½. "Although you've told them a hundred times not to write on the wall with a crayon, they don't have the control to inhibit themselves," says Claire Lerner, a mom of two and a child-development specialist at Zero to Three, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit devoted to the promotion of healthy development in the early years. They'll stop coloring the moment you say no, she says, but when the urge strikes again -- and you know it will -- they don't have the brain development they need to override it. (That doesn't mean you shouldn't say no. Just expect to say it again and again.)

Developing consistent self-control takes a long time -- in fact, the frontal lobes will continue to mature through adolescence. For a 2- or 3-year-old, you can try talking to him about why waiting might be worthwhile (without, of course, expecting results): "If we save the chocolate-chip cookies until Aunt Kate comes, you can have a tea party with her!" When he's able to keep himself from grabbing the cookies, praise him. At this age, he won't be able to reliably control his impulses, but you've started to teach him that doing so is valuable.

And time is on your side. When a friend produced a lollipop for Tucker Ezrine, 2, and told him to put it in his pocket until after lunch, he started screaming, recalls his mom, Kimberly, who lives in Chicago. But the change in Tucker from 24 to 27 months has been huge. "We'll put the lollipop in a pocket and say, 'As soon as you eat lunch, you can have it,' and he'll be fine," says Ezrine.

His patience seems to be improving at the same rate as his ability to talk and understand. "It's different now that he understands the words 'before' and 'after,'" says Ezrine.