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The Bright Side of Bad Behavior

I'm ashamed to admit that I once lost my 4-year-old in JCPenney. One minute I was looking through the racks and Matilda was hiding in the middle of them, and the next I was hysterically asking the checkout woman to make everyone in the store help me find my little girl.

We found her just outside the front door, staring at her shoes, refusing to acknowledge the gathering crowd.

I threw my arms around her and sobbed with relief.

Unfortunately, the story does not end there. Matilda was confused and very worried about her weepy mommy. "It's okay," she said, her own eyes welling up and her voice shaking. "Look. I got you a present." And with half a dozen store employees looking on, my daughter reached into her pocket and pulled out a beaded bracelet, complete with sales tags, which she'd thoughtfully shoplifted for me while we were apart.

I guess I'd forgotten, in all the excitement, that we were still going through that little taking-things-that-don't-belong-to-us phase. Blushing, I handed the bracelet to one of the staffers who had dropped everything to help, muttered, "I'm very sorry," and "Thank you," scooped up Matilda, and hustled to the car.

The paralyzing fear of losing my child changed my perspective on her behavior that day. I was so grateful to see her safe and sound that my first instinct when I saw that bracelet in her hand wasn't "What a little thief" but "Aw, she stole that for me."

Sometimes it takes a little imagination (or a big dose of adrenaline) to be able to look at the bright side of bad behavior. But in many cases, the naughty, troublesome things our toddlers and preschoolers do demonstrate that they've hit a new ability or understanding and are showing it off  -- inappropriately, but showing it off all the same. While you still have to take action when your child misbehaves, there are plenty of good reasons to take heart, whether she's getting aggressive at a playdate or lying through her teeth about who spilled the juice.

Misdirected Decorating
The bad behavior: Cara Dell'Apa, 3, is the queen of the misplaced masterpiece. She has painted the bathroom mirror with hand cream, colored the kitchen wall with markers, and experimented with the mixed-media collage potential of talcum powder ground by hand into an Oriental rug. She does these things with no ill will, just a curiosity that gets the better of her time and time again.

At 2, 3, and even 4, many kids are old enough to get a thrill out of creating something with art supplies (and I use the term loosely enough to include hand cream and talcum powder) but not mature enough to consistently remember and heed the rules about where such art projects are supposed to take place.

The bright side: Though she sometimes gets frustrated with her daughter's behavior, Lisette Dell'Apa of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, knows exactly where that kind of expression comes from: She herself is an interior decorator, constantly rearranging and redecorating her own house when she's not working on someone else's. "You can really see Cara's desire to create and accomplish something, but it's not like she can go rearrange the family room to satisfy it," Dell'Apa says. Her behavior shows that she already has energy and creativity in spades  -- just like her mom.

How to handle it: Make sure she has plenty of mom-approved opportunities to color, paint, and get her fingers good and dirty in her everyday life. Dell'Apa chooses toys and playthings that allow Cara to explore textures and colors, including hands-on, nitty-gritty kitchen activities.

When you catch your preschooler coloring on the walls or furniture, be sure you get her to help clean up the mess she's made. Having to deal with the consequences of misplaced art is eventually enough to make most kids decide it isn't worth the trouble.

Jana Murphy, a mom of 3 and an aunt of 25, is the author of The Secret Lives of Toddlers.

Playing Rough

The bad behavior: Patty Middleton of Queensbury, New York, has two boys who are a year and a half apart, so she's been keeping the peace since Benjamin, 6, and Noah, 4, were in diapers. It's not just moms of siblings who see aggressive behavior: One day, your toddler plays happily alongside the next kid. But at the next playdate, despite all the patient parenting you've put in, he grabs, shoves, yanks, kicks, or bites his "friend" to get what he wants. Unfortunately, this turn for the worse is very common in kids between 20 months and 3 years old.

The bright side: Though it may feel like the end of the world the first time your child inflicts harm on another, being pushy on a playdate at this age is a normal and oddly effective way for little kids to get one another's attention. Pushing and shoving is just a step on the road from parallel play to what we, as adults, like to think of as "play."

Even though this kind of behavior needs to be defused and discouraged, those first tries at rough play are not signs of a bully in the making, says Tovah Klein, Ph.D., the director of the Center for Toddler Development at Barnard College in New York City. "You want your child to be able to go after what he wants and stick up for himself," she says, "and this is where it starts."

How to handle it: Even if you want your child to grow up to be a go-getter, you need to intervene and show him a better way to get what he wants. "For a while, we lived by the microwave timer," Middleton says. "We set it to teach the boys how long a turn was because they were constantly fighting over the same toys  -- even if we had a duplicate."

The first times your toddler acts aggressively toward a playmate or sibling are when you have your best opportunities to curb rough behavior. Don't shame him for being aggressive, but do remove him from the situation, and say, "You want the toy? Then say, 'I need the toy.'" Then give him a few minutes to cool down before you let him try again. When he's older, you can point out how his actions make the other kid feel.

Being Sneaky

The bad behavior: When Holly Fitzsimmons was 4, she made a classic mistake that cost her a much-wanted treat: "Holly asked if she could have a cookie, and I told her she couldn't," explains mom Sandy Fitzsimmons of San Jose, California. "The next thing I know, she's in the kitchen, calling out, 'Don't come in here, Mommy!'"

Needless to say, Mommy went into the kitchen to find Holly standing on a chair at the counter, cookie in hand. The little bandit was busted.

The bright side: In a perfect world, preschoolers would never steal, sneak, or lie. In reality, they do it all sooner or later. Sneakiness is hard to quantify, but research suggests that by age 5, almost 100 percent of children tell lies. For better or worse, deception is part of the human condition.

Your preschooler's first lie or attempt to put one over on you shows a significant cognitive leap: She's figured out that what you think and what she thinks are not the same. Believe it or not, this new understanding not only gives your child the ability to be deceptive, it also helps her begin to empathize with others as well.

How to handle it: The best way to deal with a lie is directly and with a matter-of-fact, can't-fool-me attitude. Announce without any long explanation that you know what she's saying is not true (this is how parents get a reputation for having eyes in the backs of their heads), then tell her how you expect her to help remedy the situation. For instance: "I know you spilled the dog's food. You are going to help clean it up right now."

Even though your child's first lies and attempts to fool you may be downright adorable, never laugh about it or retell the story in front of her. Toddlers and preschoolers seek attention any way they can get it. If telling a fib or swiping something does the trick, chances are your child will be happy to do it all over again.

Wrecking People's Stuff

The bad behavior: In 10 years as a preschool teacher and many more invested in raising three boys of her own, Penny Luse of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, has seen more than her share of toppled block towers. "Every year we have this problem," she says. "There's just something about a tower someone else has been working on that some kids can't resist." A destructive streak can extend far beyond block towers to include things like just-picked-up toys, alphabetically arranged CDs, and even the apples in the fruit bowl. Objects that are arranged "just so" seem to drive certain kids to distraction.

The bright side: From the time they realize they can wiggle their fingers and toes at will, children are fascinated to learn what they can and can't influence and control. Knocking things over and wreaking havoc on the neatly organized parts of your home is just another extension of that same desire to test their sphere of influence. As your child experiments, he's getting his first lessons in gravity and physics  -- and also in how it makes other people feel when you wreck their stuff. Fortunately, almost all kids outgrow this phase, usually by first grade.

How to handle it: If your child is more interested in demolition than construction, make sure he knows that he's welcome to build his own creations just to knock them down. But other people's work is off-limits. It's often possible to see this kind of thing coming, and the best-case scenario is to step in before the disaster and redirect your child to something else. If you arrive on the scene too late, let him help rebuild or rearrange the mess he's made and encourage him to apologize to the thwarted builder. It's not always possible to put something back just the way it was, but cleaning up and making it right will help him begin to think about the effort that goes into constructing the things he so loves to destroy.

Being Mean to Mommy

The bad behavior: My 4-year-old, Connor, goes to preschool three mornings a week. Most days when I pick him up, it's a happy reunion. Lately, though, he seems less than thrilled with my company. "How was your morning with your friends?" I asked as we walked to the car one day. "Did you have a good time?"

"It was fun," my normally affectionate little boy conceded, then turned on me to accuse, "It was fun until you came along and wrecked it."


The bright side: Rejection from your child can feel like an arrow through the heart. But it takes a significant amount of security for your preschooler to so blatantly push you away to see the kind of response he gets. He's sure you love him, and he's testing that attachment to see how far he can stretch it.

How to handle it: Don't overreact. Hurt as you may be, it won't help if your preschooler sees you reduced to tears or very angry because of his cold words. Don't try to make him take them back or even apologize for what he's said. Instead, simply tell your child that you're sorry he feels angry at you right now because you love him and always like spending time with him. Then let it drop. Your child will be reassured that you love him no matter what, and you'll have avoided an emotional showdown.

And that's definitely a plus, since you'll need that energy to keep reminding yourself why it's good that he's a little bit bad now and then.