You know those moms you see at the mall with the über-obedient, halo-wearing, indoor-voice-using kids? You look away from your less-than-angelic tot and wonder, How does she do it? What does she know that I don t? Lucky b****! I always assumed I would be one of those women. Then I had a rambunctious, loud-talking, nonstop-testing toddler named Alex. We have our Hallmark moments, but we also have our meltdowns and our tantrums and the constant negotiating. Now I live in fear of being the other mom:
You know, the one with the sweat on her brow and the screaming kid squirming to get out of her arms or the stroller. The mom I used to look at and think, OMG, control your kid, woman! How hard can it be? Turns out, very.
Since keeping your child under house arrest is not always an option, especially during the holidays, we asked real moms--the ones who get the approving looks, not the eye rolls--to share their in-the-trenches tricks that make those public outings less painful. So go ahead and pack that diaper bag--we've got your back.
At the Grocery Store
Because we all know kid behavior can go from good to god-awful in the time it takes to read the ingredients list on the bread, the key here is to get in and get out. I always make a list ahead of time and plot my course meticulously so that there's no hovering--or backtracking. As long as we're moving, we're good.
For Christi Wampler, a mother in Knoxville, TN, the trick is strawberry milk, something her son only gets at Kroger. "I purposely don't keep it at home so that it feels like a special treat," she says. They also discuss ahead of time that getting out of the cart is not an option (the carlike carts most stores have now make this more doable). If her son pitches a fit, she doesn't budge, no matter how mortified she is. "I figure the grocery store is the one place most people have seen a toddler have a 'moment,'" says Wampler. "I don't give in. I'll either ignore him or distract him."
For distraction, Parenting.com "Mama's Boy" blogger Christine Coppa plays I Spy--the celeb version. "I give Jack a tabloid and tell him to look for red shoes, a car, a blue jacket," the Riverdale, NJ, mom says. "Later, I get to catch up on what Lady Gaga's been up to, so it's a win-win." As your kids get a little older, you can have them help--crossing things off the list or picking out stuff for their lunch.
At the Toy Store
Can you give a kid a time-out in Toys "R" Us? The answer is no. I actually tried when what began as an innocent trip to get a special toy for learning to pee on the potty ended with Alex throwing Percy at my head after I made him get off the giant Barbie Jeep he really wanted. D'oh! Clearly, I had a thing or two to learn. Amanda Cullinan, a Marshfield, MA, mom of three children under 5, says it's all about the three p's: practice, preparation, and patience. She practices a "seeing toys doesn't mean you touch them" routine by going down the toy aisle at the grocery store every time she's there. "I teach them that even though they're surrounded by toys, they're not always going to get one," she says. "That way, when they are in a toy store, they don't go into shock."
Because the toy store is unique in its allure, it's not the best place to do a spur-of-the-moment stop-in. Cullinan likes to prepare her kids for a trip by talking about it and figuring out what they're going to buy--sometimes they look at pictures online. "I drill it into my kids' heads until they repeat it back to me that they're not getting anything--or we're just getting one thing, if that's the case," she says. Then she keeps it as quick as possible. "I ask an employee to tell me exactly where to go for the item I need," she says. Occasionally, she even calls ahead and asks them to hold her purchase up front.
Got time to spare? Wampler likes to let her son explore and play with some of the toys, which many stores have set up for this purpose. "It's an activity for him," she notes. And if you run into trouble, adds Cullinan, tell them the toy-store police are going to come!
At the Photographer
The secret to pulling off that moment on Santa's lap or the family greeting-card shot? Smarties candy, says Kim Cousins, a Huntington, NY, portrait photographer and mother of two. Smarties are perfect because they don't stain lips or tongues, can be given one at a time (one per shot, if need be), are quick to eat, and make no mess, she explains. (Promising ice cream afterward is another good carrot to dangle!)
Then go with the flow and take direction from the photographer. "Parents often tell us the exact pose they want, but kids don't always cooperate," says Cousins. Sometimes you have to bag the picture you have in your head. If there are adults in the photo, too, for instance, sitting and holding your kids in your laps gives you more control, she explains. You can wrap your arms around them and hold their hands so they don't go up their noses!
If the picture is only of the kids, act like a goof. Cousins's husband stands behind her and makes a fool of himself as she shoots. You may be embarrassed then, she says, but when you have the perfect holiday card, you'll get over it.
Oh, and a good tip for getting onto Santa's lap without tears: Make a few practice trips to the "North Pole" whenever you're at the mall so your scaredy-pants can see all the other kids having fun. When it's her turn, she'll know what to expect--and be super excited.
In a Restaurant
This one is all about location, location, location. "The bigger and louder the restaurant, the better you will blend," says Jenny Rosenstrach, coauthor of Time for Dinner. And go early: Pick the 5:30 p.m. reservation, says Rosenstrach, who has two young daughters. "It's always available, the restaurant will be empty, and the staff will be nicer." Then put in your kids' orders as soon as you sit down; when the adult food comes, they can have dessert. This move should buy you at least a few uninterrupted mouthfuls. But you've got to make peace with the fact that it may not be a stellar nutrition moment. "If the bread basket becomes dinner, you have to be okay with that," says Rosenstrach. "Leave the scorecard at home and give yourself the night off, too."
Got a kid who just loves to bang the utensils and throw the sugar packets? Ask the hostess to clear the table before you sit down. "If my kids see the spoons and I have to take them away, it becomes a fight, but if they never see them, we're fine," says Katie Byrnes, a mother of two in Northport, NY. Another option: Bring your own! My friend Jill's daughter loved playing with the sugar caddy so much that Jill actually bought her one of her own (99 cents at Webstaurantstore.com). And the only time she's allowed to play with it is when they go out to eat!
Another genius way to kill time: Come up with a "restaurant game." Rosenstrach's youngest daughter invented "Raise your hand if?" (you see the color green, you went to preschool today, etc.). "The idea is not to let them stop to think about misbehaving," she says. And if it gets stressful, just order a glass of wine and remind yourself that you don't have to cook. Or clean up.
On an Airplane
Sarah Geiger, a mother of two toddlers in Brooklyn, says it's all about getting the energy out in the airport. "My kids can run, climb, and explore the wide hallways, moving walkways, golf carts, and zillion chairs all they want," she says. "We become those parents with wild animals in the airport--it's better those moments are on land!" Once they board, though, they stay in their seats. "If they have a chance to walk once on the plane, they will spend the entire flight trying to do just that, so I never put it on the table," Geiger says.
JoAnn Kuzma Deveny, a veteran flight attendant and author of 99 Ways to Make a Flight Attendant Fly--Off the Handle! agrees. "Children are more apt to stay seated if the parent simulates a car trip," she says. To that end (and for safety's sake), bring your child's car seat onto the plane (make sure it's approved for air travel) and strap her into it. Then it's all about keeping her entertained. Books, coloring pads, toys, and a portable DVD player with headphones (God's gift to flying mothers) all do the trick. So does food. Just make sure you have enough for an entire day of eating (because there will be a delay). Fill up the sippy cups ahead of time (they can be brought through security now) and get ready to be at your child's beck and call. Deveny's number one piece of advice: "Check your own bag, and only carry on what you need for your child." Even though baggage claim will add time, it's worth it to have your hands free. Maybe your kid will fall asleep and you can order a Bloody Mary and finally finish The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. But probably not.
Other great tips from Deveny: Schedule your flights during naptime or even bedtime; do diaper changing or potty visits right before boarding; always have something for your kids to suck or chew on--a pacifier, a lollipop, some crackers--during takeoff and landing, when air pressurization can cause painfully plugged ears. And if you've got a seat kicker (I do), here's my secret: When the flight attendant comes by to make sure seat belts are secure, just ask her to explain quickly to your child why we must stay strapped/not kick/use our indoor voice. I am not at all ashamed that my kid will listen to strangers on this stuff but not me.
At the Mall
Every year I say I'm going to do all my holiday shopping online, and every December I find myself trekking to the mall. Judging by the little kids racing through the racks, I know I'm not alone. Nedra Abruzzese-Werling, an Albany, NY, mom of a 3-year-old boy and a 2-year-old girl, has a new trick: her Radio Flyer two-seater plastic wagon. "I get a lot of looks, but the kids have more fun in there than in the stroller--and they get to see all around rather than just facing forward, which makes them more apt to stay put." She admits it's a little tough to maneuver in and out of dressing rooms, but says it's "so much better than screaming their names as they run in opposite directions."
A friend of mine who loves shopping more than she loathes misbehaving kids leaves her house just as her son is getting tired so he'll nod off in the car, and then she moves him to his reclined stroller when they arrive (this obviously works only with a deep sleeper). The buzz of shoppers and Muzak creates white noise, and she's good to go.
Another idea from Wampler: Go to the play area first. "I let my two-year-old run around for a bit so he associates a trip to the mall with fun for him, as well," she says. Once he's burned some energy, he'll hop in the stroller with a snack and Wampler can do her thing.
At a Sibling's Game
The first time a giggling toddler runs onto the basketball court, it's cute and everyone laughs. After that, it gets annoying. And dangerous. "The key is to give them an active role," says Brooke de Lench, founder of Momsteam.com, a clearinghouse for youth sports parents. When her triplets were toddlers, she always dressed them in little team jerseys and had them create a cheering section. "The older kids thought it was so cool because they had mini-mascots," she says. De Lench also recommends bringing a spiral notebook and turning it into a playbook of sorts: Sketch out stick-figure players with big circles on their chests and have your little ones color them in and tell you what number to fill in for each team member.
Of course, you're not going to be able to hold their attention the entire game, so take them for walks, let them go to the playground if there is one (see if you can tag-team with another parent on the sidelines), or give them a job. Katie Byrnes always has her daughter, Grace, help hand out the snack or wave the flag at halftime when they're at her big brother's soccer games. Her latest gig: photographer. "I gave her a disposable camera and had her take pictures of the game," says Byrnes. "I haven't developed them yet, but they're all probably of her feet anyway."