By Melody Warnick
Snuggling under her blankets at bedtime, Ella, 3, gazed up at me and announced longingly, "I want a new mommy." Not even four years into my tenure as Mom and I was already being edged out of the job. Even worse, Ella started announcing "I want a new mom" frequently, like whenever I failed to buy her a ring pop at the grocery-store checkout. Some days, it was all I could do not to retort, "Yeah? Well, I want a new kid!"
Developing the knack to verbally push your buttons is just part of your child's linguistic and behavioral development. The challenge is to teach her to be courteous while allowing her to assert herself -- and do it without responding like you're 3 years old. What to say (and what to skip) in response to these gems:
Whatever 18-month-old Weston Congdon has, his 3-year-old brother, Addison, wants, even if it's something that's collected dust in the toy box for the past six months. "What drives me crazy is that usually it's a baby toy, like a teething ring," says their mom, Sarah, of Ames, Iowa. "I think, 'What are you gonna do with it other than take it away from your brother?'" Now Weston, a beginning talker, walks around the house repeating "Mine, mine, mine" ad nauseam. His frustrated mom has been known to retort, "Well, then, the couch is mine and you can't sit on it."
A better way to respond: As tempting as it is to give little ones a dose of their own medicine, it won't help them see the error of their ways, and it may confuse them. Yet keeping your cool in the face of "Mine!" can tax even the most Zen-minded mom.
"Ignoring the behavior is best, but even as a clinical psychologist, I can't," admits Ray Levy, Ph.D., a dad of one and the coauthor of Try and Make Me! "I'd rather have something to say in response that I can depend on." His solution: Toss out a "brain-dead phrase" -- a short-and-sweet sound bite that lets a persistent child know he won't get his way. With a child who insists that everything is his, simply keep repeating, "Sorry" or "It's nice to want things." End of story. Even if the empty phrase doesn't completely shut down the whining, having something -- anything -- to say will keep you from saying something that you shouldn't.
Attempts to pry her 4-year-old son away from one last episode of his favorite show usually turn into major bedtime battles for Anne Eide of Columbus, Mississippi. "William will say, 'But it's not fair!' Then he'll cross his arms and stomp down the hall, come back again, and repeat, 'Mom, it's not fair.'" That's when Eide sometimes can't help but let loose with "Listen here, Mister, you either turn off the TV now or you won't watch it for a week!"
A better way to respond: On nights when she's a tad more patient, Eide uses a kid-friendly example to explain why he doesn't always get his way. "I say, 'Daddy doesn't want to be in school all the time, but right now he needs to.'" Translation: Even adults don't get everything they want. The approach usually works. "He looks at me kind of like, 'Oookay.' Then he goes and gets ready for bed," says Eide.
Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, a mom of two and author of Kids, Parents, and Power Struggles, recommends asking your child to start over and try again with less irritating words, such as "Can we please talk about this?" or "Mom, I don't like that rule." Next time he complains that something's not fair, you can say, "Remember, we talked about this before. What words are you supposed to use instead?" Giving your child new ways to express himself makes him more likely to abandon the annoying ones.
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Eleanor Petersen of St. Louis wants to do everything herself. So when her mom, Amy, was in a rush and buckled the car seat for her, Eleanor, 3, declared, "You're not the boss of me." Petersen had to bite her tongue to keep from answering, "You wanna bet?"
A better way to respond: "As a mom, you have to try not to get caught up in the words and instead connect with the feeling underneath them," says Kurcinka. "You can ask, 'What's going on here? What's the need she's trying to express, and how can I help her do it more appropriately?'" In a calmer moment, Petersen realized that what her daughter really wanted was control. When her mom gave her options (like "Do you want to do the top buckle or the bottom buckle?"), Eleanor was far more likely to cooperate. You can even head off "You're not the boss of me" by teaching your child to say, "I'd like a choice," instead.
As I was starting to make dinner, my daughter asked for a cookie, and when I said she could have one for dessert, she launched a major whinefest. "But I want a cookie right now!" Ella demanded. None of my attempts at reason dissuaded her. She just kept insisting again and again and again. Desperate for the "I want it now!" noise to stop, I broke down and gave her the cookie.
A better way to respond: Though I usually stand my ground, giving in once can set you back light-years when it comes to nagging, says Paul Coleman, a dad of three and author of How to Say It to Your Kids. "That's how slot machines work: Every tenth pull you get a reward. It's not a big reward, but it's enough to keep you putting more money in the machine." Instead, he says, I should tell my daughter no once or twice, then ignore future requests and get her mind on something else, like a silly dance or a knock-knock joke. The good news: Such dogged persistence can be a plus in the real world. "You can step back and say, 'When they grow up, at least they're not going to be pushovers,'" says Coleman.
Carl Mowry, 10, has been known to whine that he never gets to do what he wants. His mom, Carla, has a take-no-prisoners response: "You know what?" says the Omaha mom. "You're right! I will leave your life alone. But I want $800 for the house payment, $200 for food...." Carl gets a full list, and he has to write it all down.
A better way to respond: Lecturing may shut down the grumbling, but it doesn't get at the problem. Find out what's behind the whine by saying, "Is something wrong? I get the feeling you're upset about more than just not getting to play at Brad's house." Whether or not your child wants to confide in you, at least you're opening the door to the conversation -- on his level.
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I'm certainly not the only mom whose feelings have been bruised by a kid who demands a mom swap or says, "I hate you!" Greyson Kreis, 6, of Fairfax Station, Virginia, put in a request for a new mom when his mother, Kim, made him drop the latest Captain Underpants book to clean up his room and turn in early. Unlike me, she had a quick comeback. "I told him that he had better enjoy that night in his bed because the next day I would find him a new mom, and he could go live in her house -- but without his toys," she says.
A better way to respond: The unanimous chorus from experts: Don't take it personally. Kids say these things when they're frustrated or angry. It doesn't mean you're a bad parent. Of course, distancing yourself when your kid seems to be dissing your mothering skills isn't easy, but letting your child think that you're all too happy to get rid of him -- or worse, that you hate him, too -- isn't okay. Since the under-9 set are literal thinkers, they won't detect the reverse psychology at work, and you might end up undermining your child's trust.
To stay calm, try to pinpoint the real reason your kid is lashing out: For 7-year-old Shaun Herock of De Pere, Wisconsin, it was frustration and fatigue. He snapped, "I don't like you! You're not my friend!" when his mom, Mia, refused to grab hamburgers on the way home from a two-hour football practice. Her measured response: "That's fine. You're entitled to feel that way." Shaun stewed for a while, but by the time they got home, the whole thing had blown over.
Herock recognized that her son only said "I don't like you" when he was overtired, and that helped her keep her temper. Easier said than done, of course, but if you're upset, wait until you've calmed down to say anything. "When you get emotional, you lose 50 IQ points," says Ray Levy. "But later on you can say, 'It hurts my feelings when you tell me you hate me.' Usually when kids are calm, they're pretty remorseful."
My daughter's requests for a new mom have died down recently, but now she likes to say, "You hurt my feelings," when I refuse yet another visit to her bedroom at night. While most of the time I manage a response like "Thanks for sharing," I'm not always as calm as I'd like. "We all lose it and say the wrong thing," says Levy. "But it's good for parents to apologize or change their behavior, instead of thinking they have to be right or perfect all the time." In other words, it's always okay to say "I'm sorry" to your kids.