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Unspoil Your Child

STEP 2: Set rules and consequences.

There is a slippery slope in parenting, where the initial "If you behave, I'll buy you a treat" turns into "Here, take this treat, and hopefully you'll behave." To wean your child off this demand-reward pattern, you'll have to set the new rules in stone. "Observe your child for a few days to notice when she is really being demanding and refusing to take no for an answer — whether it's with staying up past her bedtime, asking for new toys, or wanting candy," suggests Lisa Forman, a family counselor in Sleepy Hollow, NY. Let's say you recognize a pattern: Your daughter refuses to sit still at the dinner table unless she is promised her favorite dessert. The next step is to come up with a rule and a realistic consequence — such as taking away TV or computer privileges — for her behavior, keeping in mind your child's age and tolerance level. And make sure your partner's on board with the new plan; kids are experts at playing one parent off the other. Then, sit down and explain the rules to your child: "In our house, we get ice cream on Friday night if we have behaved at dinner all week. If there is whining for candy during dinner, you will lose the ice cream privilege." Ask your child to repeat it back to you to make sure she understands — or better yet, make a chart together that she can decorate with stickers each time she follows the rules.

STEP 3: Don't justify your decisions.

The other night, I told my 4-year-old daughter that she couldn't have any cookies before dinner. Somehow, she managed to turn this into a 10-minute discussion about why. I realize now that she had no interest in listening to my explanation about the sugar content of the cookies — she was simply doing her best to break me. "Parents have this illusion that if they give their children the reason why they can't do what they want, the child will stop wanting it, and as far as I know, that has never happened in the history of parenting!" says Nancy Samalin, a parenting educator and author of Loving Without Spoiling. Instead of trying to reason your child into obeying you, simply say, "No, and that's the end of the discussion." If she comes back at you with, "Why?" remind her, "In our house, that is the rule." And as your child repeats her "But why?" refrain over and over, keep this statistic in mind: A survey by the Center for a New American Dream found that kids will ask for something an average of nine times before the parents cave. So stay strong and repeat your simple "no" on the ninth, tenth, and eleventh entreaty. Eventually, your child will realize that her attempts are futile, and she'll move on.

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