Children don't come with owner's manuals. Alas. Toddlers -- full of energy and eager to test your limits as well as their legs ---can be particularly tricky to parent. Here are nine parenting mistakes every mom and dad of a toddler should avoid.
Mistake No. 1: Being Inconsistent
Toddlers do best when they know what to expect, whether it's what time they bathe or go to bed or what consequences they'll face for misbehaving. The more consistent and predictable things are, the more resilient and agreeable a toddler is likely to be.
Fix it: As much as you can, keep regular routines for your child. Consistency can be a challenge when parents (or other caregivers) don't see eye to eye.
Not sure how best to react if your child dumps food on the floor or ignores bedtime? Sit down with your partner ahead of time to decide on an appropriate response -- and stick with it.
"You don't want to send mixed messages," says Tanya Remer Altmann, MD, the author of Mommy Calls: Dr. Tanya Answers Parents' Top 101 Questions about Babies and Toddlers and a pediatrician in private practice in Los Angeles. "You really want to be consistent."
Mistake No. 2: Focusing on Family Time
It's delightful to spend time with the whole family. But some parents go overboard on family time.
"Kids cherish time alone time with one parent," says Thomas Phelan, PhD, a clinical psychologist in suburban Chicago and the author of several parenting books, including 1-2-3 Magic. "One-on-one time is fun for parents too, because there's no sibling rivalry to contend with."
Fix it: What's a good way to spend one-on-one time with a toddler? Phelan recommends simply getting down on the floor together and playing. At bedtime, enjoy a book or tell stories to your child.
Mistake No. 3: Offering Too Much Help
Some parents jump in to help a toddler who is having trouble doing something. Before you do, consider the possibility that by helping your child complete a puzzle or put on a shirt, you may be sending the message that he/she can't do it alone -- in other words, that the child is incompetent.
"Parents who offer too much help may be sabotaging their young children's ability to become self-reliant," says Betsy Brown Braun, the Los-Angeles-based author of You're Not the Boss of Me.
Fix it: "We need to teach children to tolerate struggle," Braun says.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with offering praise and encouragement. "Be a cheerleader," Brown says. "Say, 'You can do this!'"
Mistake No. 4: Talking Too Much
Talking with toddlers is usually a terrific idea. But not when it's time to rein in errant behavior.
Imagine a mom has just said "no" to her 2-year-old's request for a cookie. The child fusses. Mom explains that it's suppertime. The child grabs a cookie anyway. Mom takes it away, and tries again to explain herself to her now tearful child. Back and forth it goes, with mounting frustration on both sides.
"Talking can lead to what I call the talk-persuade-argue-yell-hit pattern," Phelan says. "Toddlers are not adults in a little body. They're not logical, and they just can't assimilate what you are saying to them."
Fix it: What's the smart way to lay down the law? Once you tell your toddler to do something, Phelan says, don't talk about it or make eye contact. If the child disobeys, give a brief verbal warning or count to three. If the child refuses to toe the line, give a time-out or another immediate consequence. No explaining!
Mistake No. 5: Serving Only Kiddie Food
Does your toddler seem to eat nothing but chicken fingers and fries? Are goldfish crackers the only fish he or she eats? As some parents realize too late, toddlers fed a steady diet of nutritionally iffy kid's foods may resist eating anything else.
Fix it: Encourage your child to try "grown-up" fare. "A good percentage of kids are willing to try a new food if they see mommy and daddy enjoying it," Altmann says. "If they push back, keep putting it on their plate. Some kids need to try things a dozen or more times before they take to it."
But don't worry too much if your toddler is a picky eater. "Most toddlers are," Braun says.
"Children love the fight over food. If we make a fuss about it, it becomes a much bigger deal than it needs to be," Braun says. Her advice: As long as there's something your child can eat on the plate, don't worry. Do not allow yourself to become your child's short-order cook.
Mistake No. 6: Getting Rid of the Crib
Cribs do more than keep little ones safe. They promote good sleep habits.
A toddler moved too soon into a "real" bed may have trouble staying in bed or falling asleep, and so may end up climbing into bed with mommy and daddy.
"Some moms wear themselves out because they have to lie down with their child every night," Altmann says. "They don't realize they're the ones who set the pattern."
Fix it: When is it time to get rid of the crib? When your child asks for a bed or starts climbing out of the crib. For most kids, that comes between the ages of 2 and 3, or when your child reaches a height of about 35 inches.
Mistake No. 7: Starting Potty Training Too Soon
Some parents cajole their children into using the toilet when they think it's time -- and issue harsh reprimands when things go awry. That can lead to a power struggle.
Fix it: "Children learn to use the toilet when they're ready," Altmann says. "The process shouldn't be rushed."
But you can set the stage. Show your toddler the toilet. Explain its use. If you feel comfortable doing so, let your child watch you use the toilet -- and offer praise if he or she gives it a whirl.
What if your child is still in diapers at age 4? "Don't worry," Altmann says. "No child is ever going to go to college in diapers."
Mistake No. 8: Allowing Too Much Screen Time
Toddlers who watch lots of TV often have more trouble learning later on. And studies suggest that kids under the age of 2 can't really take in what's being displayed on TV and computer screens.
Fix it: Keep your toddler busy with reading and other, more creative pursuits. Have conversations-and encourage talking as well as listening. "The longer you can hold off exposing your child to TV, the better," Altmann says.
Mistake No. 9: Trying to Stop a Tantrum
Some parents worry that an out-of-control child makes them seem like ineffectual parents. But all toddlers have tantrums. When they do, it's pointless to try to talk them out of it -- even if the drama is unfolding in front of company or in a public place.
"When we are in public and dealing with a child, we feel judged," Braun says. "We feel like there is a neon sign over our heads saying we are incompetent parents."
Fix it: Braun says parents must remember that the child matters more than the opinions of other people -- especially strangers.
If people glare or offer unwanted advice, simply smile and say something like, "Gosh, do you remember what it was like?" Then scoop up the wailing child and find a place away from prying eyes for the tantrum to run its course. Once it does, offer the child a hug and go on with your day.