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Toddler Discipline Tricks that Work

Solène Debiès

Diplomat, interpreter, stylist, shepherd…and sometimes Danica Patrick?! Yup. Master these six who-knew jobs, and life with your toddler will be easier and more rewarding.

1. Interpreter

Orientation: While communication skills really take off between 18 months and 3 years, that doesn't necessarily make a 2-year-old easy to understand. Toddlers tend to get, er, uptight when you can't figure out what they're saying. Hence the need to hone your foreign-language translation skills. (Does “nana” mean “I want a banana” or “Call Nana”?)

Overheard at the Watercooler: My son once asked me, very seriously, “Where does love go?” Wow. I tried to concoct a response, and as I rambled, he got more upset. Finally, my daughter stepped in: “He's asking, ‘Where is Lava Girl?’” That's his action-figure toy. Oh.

Job Description: To help you understand each other better, keep your phrases short and repeat yourself often. Watch your child's gestures and tone of voice—especially important when he's frustrated. Even if you have no idea what he's yelling about, show him you understand he's angry. Give names to his emotions, by saying things like “You seem upset,” suggests Carol Weitzman, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics at Yale School of Medicine. When you give him the words, he can label the scary feeling himself and internalize the word for next time. You'll also need to trot out your interpreting talents whenever your diction-challenged little kid tries to talk to a civilian.Unknown Object

2. Cheerleader

Orientation: Obsession is a concept invented by 2- and 3-year-olds. They find something that fascinates them and then eat, drink, and sleep the topic. Why? It's a big and scary world that they can't control. So they try to master a small slice of it. That slice can be a single, specific thing (Foofa of Yo Gabba Gabba!) or an entire genre (NASCAR). Cheerleaders resist the temptation to change the subject. They encourage…even with their butts wedged into a Little Tikes car.

Overheard at the Watercooler: Faerol Wiedman, a mom of three in Eden Prairie, MN, had to fulfill her son's request to visit a car wash on his third birthday. “David goes on and on about them,” she says. “We go through all the names, like BP, Mobil, Shell, and what each one has, like dryers, soap, water, and wax. My six-year-old, John, says, ‘Can we please stop talking about the car wash now?’ I wish I could say the same, but I have to pretend to be interested!”

Job Description: Just as they'll ask a million questions, toddlers will also want to tell you a million things about their passion. So let your kid teach you a thing or two. “This is not unusual, and moms should try to go with it,” says Dr. Weitzman. You can also turn his passion into a learning experience, she suggests. He loves dinos? Hit the natural history museum or make a few velociraptors out of clay. As for cars, create ramps to teach cause and effect, or hide (and look for) them. If he really won't talk about anything else, though, check in with your pediatrician to rule out an autism spectrum disorder.{C}

3. Micromanager

Orientation: Toddlers have a preferred morning, lunch, and sleep-time ritual, and you dare not deviate. “They have no sense of what time or day it is, so a routine is the only way they know what's going on,” says Tovah Klein, director of the Barnard College Toddler Center, in New York City. “It helps them feel safe and secure when they're going through such huge developmental changes.”

Overheard at the Watercooler:  “I keep two lollipops in all of my bags—my purse, diaper bag, work bag—for emergencies,” shares Melissa Shotter, mom of Jack, 2, in Seaford, NY. “Say we have to do something unexpected, like stop at the drugstore. The treat has spared me many a meltdown. I have two in case the first one drops!”

Job Description: Whether it's bringing that faded green sippy cup on a grocery-store outing or finding the stuffed Elmo before naptime, micromanaging means becoming the kind of boss you've always hated: the one who keeps tabs on every single thing her subordinates do. But it'll be worth it—for your toddler's happiness and your sanity. Avoid unpleasant surprises by letting him know what to expect out of each day. That will help him feel in control, which makes him much more agreeable. If it means you have to read the same book (in the same tone of voice) every night, well, at least he's going to bed.Unknown Object

4. Stylist

Orientation: Does she insist on wearing her favorite shorts over her pants? And a tiara? Every day? These are battles not worth picking. Just know that fashion decisions can reinforce a child's need for expressing her independence. You think she's just getting dressed; she thinks she's ruling the world while demonstrating her fabulousness.

Overheard at the Watercooler: Christy Whitney, a mom of two in Long Beach, CA, works with, not against, her 3-year-old's partiality to a signature style. “I found a dress she adored and bought six of them in every color they had,” she says. “Kate got to pick the color every day.”

Job Description: Think of her as “the Diva.” You may not dress the Diva; you may only draw her attention to two (weather-appropriate) outfits. Keep it at two so she doesn't get overwhelmed. “Some toddlers will be totally insulted if you even help them,” says Klein. In that case, back off—or pretend to. Zipping her jacket will go easier if you do it while expressing amazement at her eye for color!{C}

5. Diplomat

Orientation: Two- and three-year-olds are sweet little angels. Then they turn into ruthless overlords faster than you can open a bag of fruit snacks. They demand, then kick and scream if they don't get what they want. Now. It can be a delicate process getting yours to do the most basic tasks—eat, sleep, get into the car seat—and you're likely to be met by loud and sometimes violent objections.

Overheard at the Watercooler: To get her 3-year-old daughter, Emily, to go to the bathroom, Rebecca Horvath of Bluff City, TN, used the power of suggestion. “I'd casually tell her that we'd go to the potty before we left the mall,” Horvath says. “Then I'd mention it a couple of times as we went from store to store, and at the food court. Then she'd go without a fight before we left. It seemed more like a fact than something Mommy wanted her to do.”

Job Description: Stay calm. All is lost if you melt down, too. Get down to her level and talk slowly, acknowledging the obstacle: “Swinging is fun. But it's time for lunch.” Patience is required, but also strategy. For example, offer three snack options of your choosing. Making your toddler think something is her idea? That's diplomacy in action.{C}

6. Shepherd

Orientation: As much as you try to channel your inner 2-year-old—approaching stoplights, fluffy cats, and talking toys as if they were all brand-new—you can't dwell in the now. This is because you have places to be and things to do. Make no mistake: Keeping a toddler on track takes a village. A patient, understanding, tolerant village.

Overheard at the Watercooler: It took an hour to coax my 2-year-old to walk six blocks home from daycare. Ants! Pebbles! Cracks! Is that an acorn? Everything had to be examined and, maybe, tasted.

Job Description: Klein suggests scheduling in extra time to get from place to place. “You can't be ready in five minutes with a toddler,” she says. “Try giving reasonable and concrete warnings, like ‘Add two more blocks to your house and then we're putting on your shoes.’” And if you're really in a rush, physically block distractions. You're bigger; she won't see the puppy if you're standing in the way. She can pet the one you see tomorrow.