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Getting Past "No!"

Not long after my son, Noah, turned 2, we had a showdown. "No, don't want to," Noah said one morning when I started to put on his coat. Though I kept trying to bundle him up, what used to be a simple routine had escalated within minutes into a frustrating battle of wills.

So what's a parent to do? Before you despair, there are gentle ways to make even the balkiest child cooperate (at least most of the time)  -- whether you want to pack him into his parka, get him off to bed, or anything in between.

Have reasonable expectations and goals. Putting yourself in your toddler's shoes may help you deal better with her behavior, say experts. Children under 3 are focused on themselves; they're busy figuring out who they are and what power they have, and they're not thinking about other people or how to get along with them, says Patricia Henderson Shimm, coauthor of Parenting Your Toddler: The Expert's Guide to the Tough and Tender Years. This helps explain why toddlers often appear selfish and aggressive.

Besides, a toddler's motor and verbal skills can't keep pace with what she wants to accomplish, says Heidi Murkoff, coauthor of What to Expect: The Toddler Years. She can't quite reach that book way up on the shelf or figure out the jigsaw puzzle. And everyone around her is so big and so bossy. Unable to express her emotions in words, a 2-year-old will kick and scream instead. "If we faced as much frustration as a toddler does, we'd melt down too," adds Murkoff.

So don't expect yours always to behave the way you want and overreact when she doesn't. Instead of aiming for 100 percent cooperation, "your goal should be to live with a child who's reasonable at least some of the time," says Shimm.

Choose your battles. Some situations  -- such as taking medicine or holding your hand when crossing the street  -- are nonnegotiable. But others offer room for compromise. Decide what you can and can't live with. If your child must do (or not do) something for health and safety reasons, fine. Otherwise, let it go. You'll avoid unnecessary power struggles.

Amy Einstein, a single mother living in Los Angeles, says she forces the issue only when absolutely necessary. If 16-month-old Tess wants to get out of her high chair at mealtime, Einstein lets her. She reasons (correctly) that Tess (usually a good eater) isn't hungry and will eat later.

Give him a choice. If you give your child a few options, there's a good chance he'll be more agreeable to other suggestions. At night, Wendy Pittman of Detroit lets her 22-month-old decide where she wants to sleep: her big-kid bed or the crib. This cuts down on bedtime struggles and helps ease the transition from the crib to a bed.

Similarly, if your toddler refuses to pick up his toys or leave the childcare center at the end of the day, try to create a win-win situation in which he can make a decision without losing face. Does he want to put away his toys according to size or by color? On the way home from daycare, does he want to listen to a tape in the car or look at his favorite picture book?

All toddlers want is a little bit of control over their lives. And kids need some experience making their own decisions, which is an important skill to develop. Just remember to limit the choices: Don't overwhelm your child with five options for breakfast when two will do fine.

Anticipate the pitfalls. Before their outings, Karen Savitz of Wexford, PA, makes sure to tell her 23-month-old that when they're somewhere safe, she'll be allowed to walk. Savitz learned the hard way: If she kept Abigail in the stroller, "she'd cry as if I'd ripped her heart out. It was so embarrassing." Now if Abigail starts to cry before Savitz can take her out, she'll tell her daughter, "You have to calm down first. Then you can get out and walk."

If you know that your toddler won't want to leave the park, try to give some kind of advance warning so that "you're not just throwing something at her," says Shimm. Preparation can save you  -- and your tot  -- a lot of grief later on.

Praise him when he's good. Don't hesitate to give your little one, who craves your attention, a verbal pat on the back that will positively reinforce his good behavior. "If you don't catch your kids being good, then they'll behave badly in order to get your attention," says Murkoff.

Every time 20-month-old Emma Carlson of Des Moines sits quietly at the table instead of climbing around the kitchen, her mom, Lisa Kingsley, expresses her appreciation by saying, "Thank you for staying in your chair."

Acknowledge your toddler's accomplishment, but don't go overboard. It's best to be specific; for instance, say, "I see you picked up your toys!" instead of "You're such a good boy!" This way, your child feels good because he's done something on his own  -- not because he's managed to earn your stamp of approval.

Make it fun. To avoid or defuse a power struggle, be creative: Try playing around. Your child will forget what was unpleasant about the task in the first place. When Ryan Austin, 2, of Berkley, MI, refuses to brush his teeth, his mother, Mary, coaxes him to mimic her, making a game out of it. Mary opens her mouth and makes funny noises; Ryan follows suit. Then they move on to brushing.

Distracting your toddler with another activity can also help prevent a meltdown. To ease her daughter into a car seat, Pittman encourages her to seat her favorite doll safely. "She focuses on taking care of her baby rather than on the fact that she has to sit in her car seat," says Pittman.

Or you can try being goofy. One night in Tucson, while carrying his kicking, screaming 2-year-old upstairs to bed, Jim Cain stopped in his tracks and made a funny noise. Olivia quit yelling and gave him a searching look. Jim kept repeating this odd behavior all the way up the steps, and by the time they got to her bedroom, Olivia was laughing.

Of course, even if you use all of these strategies, you can never underestimate a willful toddler's ability to shatter your resolve to remain calm, cool, and collected. Getting Noah to cooperate as a toddler involved a lot of trial and error, but eventually I learned what worked  -- or usually worked. And a part of me (okay, a very small part) even enjoyed watching this side of his personality emerge.

Betsy Rubiner has won two fellowships from the Casey Journalism Center for Children and Families.