Pick Your Battles

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My daughter was never concerned about her fashion and style until she started going to school full time. For the first 4 years of her life, she barely expressed an opinion about what she wore.


But suddenly she started getting very particular about her wardrobe. Her outfits are, shall we say, creative. After a few weeks of failed negotiations, I decided this was not a battle I wanted, or needed, to fight.


As it turns out, many parents agree. Denise Slaughter, a Charlotte mom of twin 4-year-old boys, also doesn’t care what her boys wear as long as their clothes are appropriate for the occasion. Short sleeves in winter? No. Mismatched socks? Who cares?!


“When they dress themselves, they feel they have a little control.” And hopefully, Slaughter says, “If you pick your battles so they have some control, they’ll give in on the important things.”


For children ages 2-5, it’s a natural part of their development to push boundaries and figure out what they can control. But what are the important things? What issues should parents not back down from?


Dr. Jennifer Willard, a pediatrician at Township Pediatrics of Matthews, says diet and sleep are the two health issues parents should never compromise. She also mentions safety — “a no brainer” — and behavior as important issues in which parents need to establish early on that they are in control.


Parents seem to agree with these top issues. Slaughter says she “definitely will not budge on good eating habits and proper behavior,” but she admits that she and her husband sometimes have different views on what constitutes bad behavior. In the end, though, the family makes decisions based on what’s important in the long run.


That’s the view Willard is concerned with, too. With long-term health issues like childhood obesity on the rise, Willard says parents need to make good eating — five fruits and vegetables a day — a priority. If you have a picky eater who wants control over his snacks, offer him a choice of two parent-approved foods: “Would you like carrots or grapes?” What about the child who asks for chips or cookies instead? “Don’t even have those options in the house,” she suggests.


Dinnertime is another issue that often turns into a battle. Do you give in? “Much of this is based on your family values,” says Willard, mom to a 10-year-old and a 15-year-old. Establish your dinner rules and stick to them. However, she says, don’t be a short-order cook because your kids whine about what’s in front of them. This lets them think they are in control — and they will continue this behavior.


Getting enough sleep is key to many behavioral issues. “Do not bend on the nighttime routine,” says Willard. “If kids keep getting out of bed, put up a gate or a childproof door opener on so they can’t open the door.”


In her practice, Willard hears of many 2- and 3-year-olds who cry at the door and fall asleep on the floor … and she says that’s OK. “Don’t let your kids cry for an hour, because they’ll think you’ve abandoned them, but every 10-15 minutes, go in and gently repeat ‘Mommy says it’s bedtime now. You have to try to go to sleep.'”


As far as behavioral and respect issues, it’s all about who’s in charge, says Willard, and parents need to establish from day one that they are in charge of setting a family routine, a civil tone and respectable behavior. For example, she calls hitting, biting and kicking the Big Bad Three. “There should be no tolerance for these things. Save timeouts for these important issues.”


For 4- and 5-year-olds, she says positive words work very well. A good way to give positive reinforcement is at the dinner table. “Wow, Daddy, did you see how Jimmy ate ALL his green beans?” She also believes in natural consequences. If your child is jumping on the furniture, the natural consequence is not being allowed to sit on the furniture.


Willard also says parents should exert control over friends and play dates for kids at this age. “You want them around people who have the same values as you do, because in elementary school, they will be learning new behaviors from new people, and you lose some control.”


She adds, “It’s so important to do the early work, so they won’t sway from your values.” As children get older and are influenced by others, you want them to remember what you taught them and established as important.


Need help deciding what’s important?


Books Dr. Jennifer Willard keeps on her shelf: “Touchpoints,” by Drs. T. Berry Brazelton and Joshua D. Sparrow, and “Positive Discipline for Preschoolers” by Jane Nelson, Cheryl Erwin and Roslyn Ann Duffy.


Heather Bailey is a Charlotte freelance writer and editor and mother of a 5-year-old.