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When Toddlers Act Like...Toddlers

When 3-year-old Madeline Offenhauser went to a talent show at her big brother's school, she treated the audience to a sideshow. "Madeline went up by the stage to sit on the floor with the kids," says her mom, Maggie. "The next thing I know, she's got her dress flipped over her belly, and her bottom is bare. All I could say to the other moms is that I swear she had underpants on when we left the house."

Oh, the mischievous toddler. Once kids can walk and talk  -- but not very well  -- they excel at the sorts of things that embarrass, irritate, and (sometimes) amuse. But the thing is, your toddler isn't really being bad. That would imply that he actually understands what it means to behave. He doesn't. A toddler lacks some of the internal mechanisms needed to control himself, which accounts for a lot of why he acts out. He'll also misbehave when he wants something  -- but doesn't have the words to ask for it.

Until he does, should you sit back and let him act like, well, a toddler? Yes and no. You have to steel yourself to a certain amount of trouble, but you can also teach him better ways to get what he's after (which, when he remembers, will result in slightly better behavior). Here's how to handle some of toddlers' most common misdeeds:

Refusing to Share

What they do: Try to convince a toddler to loosen his viselike grip on the fire truck, and you may have a bigger problem on your hands (like a tantrum that'll be soothed only by every single truck in the room). What's especially frustrating to many moms is the fickle nature of a toddler's ability to share. As Teresa Buck of Lamar, Missouri, explains, "Sure, Clara will share  -- if she's in the mood. If you get her on a day that she's not, forget about it. She'll start slapping." And she usually finds out when 2-year-old Clara isn't in the mood when it's too late.

Why they do it: Young children can't understand sharing. They identify themselves by what they have, so asking them to share is like telling them to cut off an arm.

What you can do: Try saying "Take turns" instead of "Share." If you say, "You need to share," he'll think that he needs to give away the plastic yellow phone for good. Instead, try "You'll have a turn with the phone for five minutes, then Sally will get a turn with the phone for five minutes." He doesn't know what "five minutes" means, but he'll get the point, especially if you use a timer. Somehow, kids respect the authority of a ring or a beep more than the sound of Mom's voice.

You can also try to avoid confrontation. "Respect your child's right to have his own things," says Ruth Peters, Ph.D., author of It's Never Too Soon to Discipline. Before kids arrive for a playdate, let your child pick five things he doesn't want the others to touch and help him find a safe hideaway for them. Then explain that all the other toys in the playroom are for everyone to share  -- er, take turns with.

Lisa Peters O'Brien, a mom of three, lives in New York.

Hitting and Pushing

What they do: I have to admit that when my son Terence was 2, he was the playgroup bully. Any time another child veered toward a toy he had his sights on, bam!  -- down went the other kid. And yours doesn't even have to be the bully to start shoving: Even the docile ones occasionally lash out, shocking  -- and embarrassing  -- their mothers.

Why they do it: Since toddlers identify themselves by what they have  -- or what they want to have  -- they'll stop at very little to get more. As a result, inanimate objects seem more precious than other little bodies: Your toddler might bowl over another kid just to get to a toy on the other side of him. Other times she'll hit because she's experimenting with the reaction she'll get. Does she realize she's causing pain? Nope. And don't forget the emotional reasons for hitting: Toddlers get frustrated  -- and mad  -- easily, and the only thing they can think to do is respond physically.

What you can do: Start by reprimanding her (after all, the other kid is probably bawling, so you can't exactly begin your lesson on what she should have done right away). Say simply, "No hitting. That hurts." Then show her a better way. If she pushed a pal, say, "Did you want to play with that ball? You need to walk around Samantha to get it." Take her hand and do it together.

If your toddler hits someone just to get a reaction, redirect her to another activity. A cause-and-effect game, like a jack-in-the-box, is a good choice, since she's desperate to see her actions make something happen.

Loving Their Naked Selves

What they do: When Mackenzie and Claire Seymour of Ottawa were toddlers, their parents usually put on an Irish CD at bathtime and the girls would dance around in the nude. So Mom and Dad weren't really surprised (just a little chagrined) the evening their daughters stripped down at a big party when the room filled with Irish music.

If stripping doesn't occur in your family, chances are groping does. That's right: Your kid's not the only one whose hands wander into his pants. Most kids touch themselves, and most parents blush about it.

Why they do it: "Toddlers are fascinated by their bodies. They think they're cool and that everyone else should feel the same way," says Marilou Hyson, Ph.D., associate executive director at the National Association for the Education of Young Children in Washington, DC. Unfortunately, how our social neophytes exhibit this delight isn't always appropriate  -- and they don't care.

What you can do: To bring him around to your way of thinking, first encourage your child's pride in his body and his growing ability to do and undo his snaps, zippers, and laces. "It's essential not to chastise him or make him feel ashamed," says Hyson. Go ahead and let him romp naked when possible (before pajama time, for instance), but explain it's not to be done outside the house. Then at the park, when he starts pulling at his pants, say, "Remember? Unless you want to go home, those stay on."

Make sure your child's clothes are comfortable (watch for scratchy elastic cuffs and tags) and not too warm, so he doesn't have added incentive to disrobe. It's also helpful to keep a few outfits on hand that are too hard for him to undo for those times you absolutely don't want him to undress.

If your toddler's hands wander, distract him. He's probably doing it out of boredom or habit. Without making an issue of it, reach down, take his hand, and divert his attention with something more interesting (or silly) to do. With kids closer to 3, you can also say that though touching feels nice, it's a private thing he should do only at home in his bedroom or the bathroom.

Picking Her Nose

What they do: Do you really want the details? "Claire found her nose at about 2," says dad Rowan Seymour. "She'd just sit there and explore."

Why they do it: Seymour noticed that Claire tended to pick her nose when she was bored or thinking seriously, and she's not alone. It's something to do (and hey, look at the cool stuff in there!) that can turn into an unconscious habit.

What you can do: Children don't usually have the self-control to stop this particularly unappetizing behavior until they're 4 or 5. Each time you see your child's finger in a nostril, say matter-of-factly, "Finger out of your nose, please. Do you want a tissue?" Then show her how to blow and wipe her nose. On special occasions (Thanksgiving with the relatives?), try wrapping a bandage around the offending finger. It'll be that much harder to get that finger up her nose  -- and she might even be delighted to have an excuse to wear a bandage. And getting the bandage off will at least occupy her for a little while before she starts nose-picking again.

Taking His Own Sweet Time

What they do: "Colton is very much the dawdler," says Cheryl Jung of Indianapolis. "He's fascinated by rocks, and he can easily turn a five-minute walk from the car to the store into a twenty-five-minute trip." Jung says the more she tries to hurry her 2-year-old along, the slower he moves. "If I rush him, it's a sure way to set off a tantrum," she says.

Why they do it: "One person's dawdling is another's 'stop and smell the flowers,'" says Hyson. Everything on that long, slow walk across the parking lot is exciting to someone who hasn't seen it all a million times and who doesn't understand the meaning of "schedule." A kid like Colton is hardly dawdling, given all there is to look at, from the car turning the corner to the way the leaves blow around in front of him. He's trying to take it all in  -- and if he could have a little more time with the crack in the cement, Mom, that'd be great.

What you can do: If possible, leave early so your child can dawdle. If you can't, give him advance warning that it's time to get a move on, either in minutes or tasks ("You can pump on that swing ten more times, then we'll go."). When you don't have time to linger, say, "I know you want to watch that cloud, but let's get in the car and count how many more we can see on the way to school."

Of course, even the best-laid plans don't always elicit cooperation. When that happens, you'll just have to hurry him along  -- even if that means carrying him.

The thing to remember regardless of what your little troublemaker is up to is that his antics really aren't a reflection of your parenting skills. Toddlers have a special way of throwing all your good intentions out the window. Watch a bunch of little kids in action and you'll feel better: While your toddler's refusing to share even one Lego, you can rest assured that her friend is picking her nose while she looks for another toy, and their other buddy has just figured out how to undo his overall straps.