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How to Pick Your Battles

Even as kids chafe at limits and discipline, they secretly crave both. By setting rules, you're paying attention to your child's well-being  -- and that makes him feel loved and protected. You know, of course, that it's your job to set the boundaries even if it means a clash. But how do you go about choosing which battles to pick and which to ignore?

Molly, a mom of four, knows where her lines are drawn. "I think of my kids' behavior falling into three possible categories: the good, the bad, and the ugly." While she thinks of the bad as "uncooperative" behavior, it's the ugly stuff  -- the risky or harmful actions  -- that she works hardest to prevent. "Though I try my best not to let everything turn into a showdown, I don't let anything in the ugly category get past me if I can help it. If one of my kids talks back to me, for example, I don't let it slide. Nasty words are hurtful, so I always take a stand against them."

Joanne, mother of 7-year-old Eden, has a different method for sorting out what she calls the "big deals." "To decide what's over the top for my child, I ask myself one simple question: What will this mean for her when she's thirty? It helps me put things into perspective and decide if something's really worth the fight. For instance, when Eden started preschool, she had a favorite shirt. I couldn't peel this red turtleneck off her back  -- so I stopped trying. Instead, I told myself, I'm sure at thirty, she won't be wearing the same shirt! On the other hand, I insist that Eden sit in the back of the car and stay buckled in  -- no exceptions. As far as I'm concerned, buckling up means she'll be alive at thirty, so it's worth the fight."

Marian, an easygoing mom who describes herself as a pushover, uses her sense of humor to help her make discipline decisions. "When I get annoyed at my son's thumb sucking, I remind myself that no one ever walks down the wedding aisle with his finger in his mouth. And when my daughter went through a cheese-only phase, I reassured myself that she wouldn't starve to death. I try to consider the real consequences of my children's actions rather than squabble over the things that simply get under my skin."

Limits That Make Sense

When you set them for the right reasons, boundaries help you protect and guide your child so that she stays safe and picks up the fundamentals of how to get on in life. To determine what warrants your attention  -- and justifies a battle  -- just ask yourself these four key questions:

Will these rules keep my child from getting hurt?

Safety-based boundaries keep her secure in this world by making sure she doesn't harm herself or others. A few examples:

• Don't play with matches.

• Hold my hand when crossing the street.

• Pet the dog gently.

• Sit in the car seat.

• Don't hit.

Will these limits teach my child right from wrong?

Certain rules help a child develop moral values and personal integrity. Useful ones that fall into this category:

• Tell the truth.

• Pay for what you take.

• Don't cheat.

• Don't call people nasty names.

Will these rules make my child easier to get along with?

Expecting her to respect the feelings and rights of others teaches her to get along with people and grow into a well-adjusted adult. Some to consider in this vein:

• Share the candy with your brother.

• Wait and take your turn.

• Don't grab someone's toy. Ask for it.

• Say "Excuse me" to get my attention.

• Thank Grandma for the gift.

Will these boundaries give my child a sense of responsibility?

Kids need to learn to take charge of their lives and pull their own weight  -- these are critical life skills for their well-being and yours. Plus, they make family life run more smoothly and let kids understand their role in the household. Rules on responsibility might include:

• Brush your teeth every night.

• Do your homework before you watch TV.

• Help pick up the toys.

• Set the table.

• Wash your hands before meals.

Rules To Relax

Some limits have little to do with providing protection or guidance but instead set standards of behavior that suit our style.

Depending on a parent's personality, anything from cleanliness to privacy may feel important. For instance, if you value neatness, you might insist your child eat only in the kitchen; if you favor formality at your house, you might establish a rule about calling grown-ups by their last name.

It helps to remember that such expectations are really a matter of taste. While there's nothing wrong with asking certain things of your child and hoping he'll comply, these desires aren't usually worth a major fight. They tend to be more about pleasing you rather than guiding your child. So why call him on the carpet if he puts his toys in the wrong bin or wants to wear his superhero cape every day?

Kids need some room to be different from their parents, so take the long view and give it to them. Otherwise, you may find yourself embroiled in clashes all the time. If you're holding your own on the core rules, chances are your child won't go haywire if you allow him to make his own decisions about matters based on personal preference. The payoff: As he gets older, he'll probably decide that he wants to be a lot like you after all.

Drawing a line and taking action when it's crossed is one of your toughest jobs. Remember, though, the rules you make are your decision  -- discipline boils down to doing what works for you and, ultimately, your child. The one thing I've found to be true when it comes to setting limits is that the clearer you are about the expectations you have for your kids  -- both in the family and in the world  -- the less time you'll spend battling it out in the end.

Bonnie Maslin is a psychologist and mother of four. This article is excerpted from Picking Your Battles: Winning Strategies for Raising Well-Behaved Kids.