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Just Ignore It

I'm on an airplane, and my 3-year-old daughter is beating her baby doll's head against the back of the seats in front of us. The seats are empty, and despite my wondering whether the person across the aisle thinks I'm raising a pathologically aggressive child, and knowing that the banging really does bug me, I'm ignoring it. This, I promise you, doesn't come easily.

I want to tell Anna to put the doll down. I want to explain that it isn't nice to bang Baby. I want to grab it and stuff it into my bag. But the reality is, she's not banging the doll all that hard, and it's not making much noise, hurting the doll or the seat, or, appearances aside, indicative of any deep-seated psychosis. Anna's just bored, and I'm mostly worried about what other people might think. Realizing this makes it easier. I don't comment on the doll-pummeling and instead offer her stickers. She takes them, and the doll, now at her feet, is spared. So are Anna and I, who have resolved the incident without confrontation.

Moderating my reaction and gently redirecting my daughter's behavior (or, in some cases, out and out ignoring it) is a parenting skill I've only recently  -- and sporadically  -- put into practice. It runs counter to my quick-response, take-action, talk-it-out personality. And the airplane episode was one of the easier ones for me to cope with. Sidelong glances from strangers and battered plastic babies I can ignore. But what about whining, or tantrums, or eleventh-hour bedtime begging? I know that my usual reactions  -- exasperation, exhortation, submission  -- will never put an end to these annoyances, and may in fact encourage them. Could I apply nonreaction to these as well?

Doing Nothing Is Hard Work

For most parents, "Just don't react" is the kind of advice that's easier said than done. It's not difficult to understand why. For starters, many things our kids do are really irritating, so we rise to the bait and react. Loudly. Or their whined demands go on long enough that we just give in, even though we know we shouldn't. But regardless of whether the problem is surrendering to a tyrannical toddler's order that you throw out her sandwich and make her a new one cut in squares, or being pushed noisily to the end of your rope by a preschooler crying because she's not allowed to wear your pearl necklace to the playground, ignoring obnoxious behavior doesn't really mean you do nothing. What it means is that you ignore your exasperated or enraged gut response and offer one that is reasoned and calm instead.

Brooke Hummer Mower of Chicago, the mother of a 5- and a 7-year old, admits a lack of parental backbone when it comes to her boys' stalling tactics. "I know I should ignore them when they ask to change their clothes again and again during the half hour before we leave for school," she says. "They start saying, 'These pants are too tight, and I want this hat  -- no, I want the other one.' I know I should put my foot down. Instead, I indulge them." Which brings up the other factor that can make these situations difficult: No parent wants to ignore a child's legitimate requests or feelings. Maybe his pants are too tight.

Effectively ignoring your child as a parenting strategy means sorting out the difference between his deliberate (and often obnoxious) attention-getting behaviors and his very real needs. It means figuring out what's going to set a precedent you'll have to deal with in the future and what's a passing developmental fad. And it means understanding what motivates your child's behavior  -- and your own.

This is what I managed to do successfully on the plane. I ignored the doll-bonking but succeeded in stopping it through a reasoned reaction: diversion via stickers. So how can you disregard the merely annoying while correcting the unacceptable?

Know Why You Matter

Your reaction, or lack thereof, has an effect only because your child cares about and notices so completely what you do and think  -- despite apparent evidence to the contrary. This is why seeming to do nothing, in response to their best efforts to get you to do otherwise, can be so effective.

"It's a powerful tool," says Mary Engleman-Kemmer of Wichita, KS, the mom of three, ages 12, 9, and 5. "Mine know they haven't pleased me if I ignore them. If I'm not reacting to them, it's like they're in a time-out."

Your child's attention to what you think and feel is also the reason that allowing yourself to get caught up in a cycle of knee-jerk scolding can be detrimental. Nobody wants her child to say "poop" and "pee" over and over. But just because a toddler or preschooler is doing this during the course of a few days doesn't mean he's on the road to swearing like a sailor (make a big deal of it, though, and it may last longer than a few days).

"If your child does something that is not dangerous but obnoxious, and you respond in an overly negative way, you run the risk of starting a vicious cycle that ultimately has a life of its own," explains psychologist Ernest Frugé, Ph.D., coauthor of Why Children Misbehave and What to Do About It. "In other words, a minor incident could turn into a major problem. And the lesson your child learns is that he can get your attention immediately through irritating behavior."

Ironically, attention may not have been his original goal. He may just have been experimenting with language, figuring out what he is and isn't allowed to say, a common goal of potty talk at this age. So how should you react?

Buy Some Time

Say you've just finished folding the laundry when your 2-year-old tips it over, climbs into the empty basket, then jumps out onto the clothes. You're understandably annoyed. But instead of showing it, let your first response be none at all. During this brief pause, think about your child's motivation. It's possible that she doesn't understand what she's done and is just having fun. Or perhaps she understands exactly what she's done and is trying to get your goat. Either way, stopping for a second or two helps you figure out the lesson you want to get across and how  -- or if  -- you'll respond.

And, says Frugé, "when you pause for a moment to figure out how you want to react, you show your child a calm way to handle provocation, and you demonstrate how to control and manage irritation with others."

Ignore Behavior; Respond To Emotion

Certain things kids do are almost guaranteed to rile even the most sweet-tempered parent. The top culprit? Whining, by a long shot. It's probably the behavior most deserving of disregard. But that doesn't mean it's a call to inaction.

"It never hurts to acknowledge your child's feelings," says Phyllis Sonnenschein, a senior consultant for Families First Parenting Programs, in Cambridge, MA. "But do so with a smile and then move on: 'Yes, I know you want that cereal, but you know what the rules are about sweet cereals. That's just the way it is.'" This way, you're not giving in to a request you've deemed unreasonable but responding to the completely normal underlying frustration.

Trickier than whining is its big brother: crying. Parents get caught up trying to quiet wailing both to make their child feel better and to protect their own sanity. But, as with whining, crying doesn't always call for more than a simple acknowledgment of what's behind it, unless it's due to pain or fear.

Suppose your child sobs when the video he's watching ends and you announce that it's time for bed  -- your basic, run-of-the-mill "No, I don't want to go to bed, I want to watch another video!" scene. Obviously, you don't want to just give in  -- it's bedtime. But you don't totally ignore him, either. "Tell him you're sorry he's sad or angry, and if he feels like crying, it's okay, and when he's done, you can read together or cuddle," suggests Sonnenschein. Then scoop him up and proceed with toothbrushing and getting ready for bed. The bottom line: If the tears aren't caused by a true crisis, don't treat the outburst like one.

Decide Beforehand What You Will React To

Obviously, dangerous activities or violent fights among siblings can't be ignored  -- not even for a moment. Nor can the behavior that you and your partner have agreed beforehand just isn't acceptable. Both of these situations require consistent and immediate attention. And by reacting strongly to only those few things you've decided are beyond the pale, you increase the impact and the effectiveness of your response.

What parents find they simply can't ignore differs from family to family, even situation to situation. Carol Colby of Thomaston, GA, the mother of two boys, 2 and 4, shares my inability to ignore tantrumlike screaming, especially in front of others. "When my parents visit, my four-year-old acts up because he thinks I'm less likely to discipline him in front of them. But it drives me nuts, so I don't ignore it. I just tell my parents, 'Okay, I'm going to deal with this even when you are here so I can change it.'"

For others, like Mower, screaming isn't nearly the issue that language has become for her 7-year-old. "It wasn't as big a deal when he was little and didn't know what he was saying. But now, when he calls me names, I can't ignore it. There's always a consequence, like no TV."

What you respond to will change over time depending on your child's age, and even on your own growth as a parent. Engleman-Kemmer admits that until she had her second child, she never ignored anything her first one did. "I just reacted  -- until one day at the park he threw a tantrum, and I needed to put the baby in the stroller. I ignored him because it was inconvenient to do anything else, and he just pulled himself together on his own. That's when I realized I'd been reinforcing his behavior."

As for my own difficult-to-ignore parenting situations, I'm still striving for such successes as the baby-banging episode, and I'm making progress. Anna had been stretching out nap- and bedtime rituals with a litany of requests  -- a quick snack, one more book  -- so I began simply acknowledging them but not acting on them. Since then, I've had her down in record time. The other day, as naptime approached, she screamed and cried that she wasn't tired. Fifteen minutes later, having just asked for a drink of water, she was sound asleep in my arms.

Contributing editor Barbara Rowley is the author of Baby Days: Activities, Ideas, and Games for Enjoying Daily Life With a Child Under Three.