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When Kids Want Discipline

Squabbling at a playdate

Why your child wants discipline: Little kids are just learning how to play with their peers, and even half an hour can be a long time for them. Your child doesn't have the social grace to say, "Hey, I'm a little pooped right now. Anyone mind if we continue this get-together another time?" By grabbing toys or bursting into tears over her friend's choice of block color, she's not purposely trying to be difficult. She's telling you, in the only way she knows how, that she needs your help.

What to do: Give her the words to describe how she's feeling -- or tell her, if necessary, that her behavior is not okay.

You can say to your child, "It looks like you're tired of playing with that toy. Let's try the blocks over here." Or help her calm down by putting her on your lap and quietly reading a book together.

If your daughter does something like bop her pal on the head with a doll, saying "We don't hurt other people" is enough. If you're at someone else's house and decide to end the playdate, don't lecture your toddler. She's learning by your example: When her behavior gets out of hand, it's time to go home. She may be relieved to get back home to her own toys and routines.

You might call this common sense. But guess what? It's also a positive form of discipline.

Talking back to grown-ups

Why your child wants discipline: Kids can't help trying out words and ways of talking they've overheard from friends. Believe it or not, though, they want you to teach them how far they can go -- to set the boundaries of acceptable talk. So ungrit your teeth and consider sassy talk a plea for disciplinary guidelines: "Can I talk like this to grown-ups? Will you let me?" Your answer (in more helpful words, of course) will be: "No way, buddy!"

Kids also want to be reassured that adults are different from playmates, that they can't speak to you the same way they would to another child. Respectful talk implies that adults are in charge, which means your child feels safe and doesn't have to guess about how to behave.

What to do: Insist that your child use polite words, even if he has to repeat the sentence three or four times to get it right. Some life lessons are like multiplication tables: They require constant repetition before they sink in.

That means you've got to resist the urge to snap back, "Don't you dare talk to me that way!" That's only showing him you think that kind of talk is effective, says Elizabeth Pantley, a parenting educator and author of The No-Cry Discipline Solution. "Instead, squat down to your child's level, look him in the eye, and calmly but firmly say, 'I'd like you to try again. How about 'Mom, I really want to play a bit longer on the playground,'" suggests Pantley.

If you can comply with his now-polite request, do so. Otherwise, say, "I hear you and I know what you want. But we don't have time to stay today. It's time to leave."

If your child mouths off to another adult, take him aside and give him the words to apologize. Remember: He's a rookie in the art of polite conversation. If he refuses to change his words, offer the apology yourself, and talk to your child later about how you expect him to speak to adults.