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Lessons In Problem Solving

You know the drill: Your fearless 2-year-old, eager to get to the park, wants to run across a busy street without holding your hand. You grab him and tell him to wait for Mommy, and before you know it, he's lying on the ground, pounding his fists and screaming. If only he could see the logic in crossing the street with a grown-up  -- and the danger he'd face if he tried to do it by himself.

It takes time  -- and a little direction  -- for a toddler to understand how to handle challenges and conflict on his own; problem solving, after all, is a process that needs to be learned, just like everything from good manners to arithmetic. Luckily, there are simple, everyday ways to help him develop the skills he'll need to deal with his problems head-on, without melting down. Ideas from Patricia Henderson Shimm, associate director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development at Columbia University:

• Give your child a chance to face a challenge himself. Let him find his own path onto the jungle gym instead of lifting him up; it's a great test of his reasoning skills. If he struggles and gets frustrated, help him down and take him to a part of the playground where he's more confident in his abilities, like a slide or seesaw.

• Set an example. Your toddler likely gets a kick out of mimicking you, so watch the way you act around him. If you lose your cool after accidentally burning the pancakes, for example, your child will likely copy your behavior when he makes a mistake. Instead, take a deep breath and find a more constructive way to deal with the situation. Talk through your solution aloud so he can hear how you work out the problem.

• Avoid lectures. Your 2-year-old just isn't ready  -- or sophisticated enough  -- to understand why many of the actions he does naturally are wrong. Don't get upset with him if he purposely turns over a wastebasket; he's merely exploring. Simply say, "Trash stays in the basket"  -- no need to explain that it's dirty or messy or a pain for you to sweep up. He may do it again (and again), but eventually he'll get that it's not okay.