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April 23, 2024

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How to Pick Your Battles With Little Kids

Biting, whining, throwing food, tantrums ... it's exhausting!

What do you do if your toddler has a kicking, screaming tantrum in the middle of Walmart? It’s time to pick your battles. As kids get older, we expect more from them, and rightly so. But it can be tough to know what’s OK because it’s “just a stage” and what’s no longer age-appropriate. That’s because kids don’t necessarily develop on a strict timetable.

“Age gives you a general idea of when you can expect normal developmental milestones like being able to use your words instead of having a tantrum,” says Marcy Guddemi, Ph.D., a child advocate. “But the timing can also depend on your child’s temperament, how much practice they’ve had with the skill you’d like them to have and how you handle daily opportunities to develop it,” she adds.    

With a little insight and encouragement, you can help your child move to the next level. Use our guide to decipher when certain “bad” behavior is on track, when to expect your child to age out of it and even how to speed up the process a bit.

Pick Your Battles With Littles



It’s very common for teething infants to nip. In fact, they’re prone to bite everything, which can provide information about the world like, “If I bite Mommy, she screams.” Still, start training your baby now not to bite you or anyone else. If they chomp down when you’re breastfeeding, remove them from your breast and say: “No biting,” and turn away from them. Withdrawing your attention (and your boob) plus the tone of your voice sends a clear message that biting isn’t OK.


Even if you taught your baby not to bite, they still might do it.

“Toddlers sometimes bite to communicate their frustration,” says Peter L. Stavinoha, Ph.D., co-author of Stress-Free Discipline: Simple Strategies for Handling Common Behavior Problems.   

That’s because they don’t have the complex language skills yet to ask for what they want, such as the Legos a friend is playing with. If your toddler bites, state firmly: “No biting. Biting hurts,” then take the toy away or whatever they snatched.

“Comfort the bitten child and say things you want your child to hear, such as: ‘You don’t like being bitten because biting hurts and we don’t bite our friends,’” says Guddemi.

Toddlers are too young to understand the pain somebody else feels, but focusing on the bitten child and your tone of voice will help them learn that biting doesn’t work.


By now, biting shouldn’t be an issue because preschoolers can ask for what they want. But they still might bite on impulse as a fast way to get something, like a turn on the swing. If you’ve got a biter, remind them before play dates and preschool that even if they get mad, biting isn’t allowed.

When things go well, be your child’s cheerleader: “That’s great you didn’t bite. I’m so proud of you. Keep up the good work!”

If your child bites anyway, remind them to use their words instead of biting and give them a time-out (for double their age in minutes) and comfort the bitten child. Stay calm, state the rules and deliver a consequence to help put a stop to it.



Meltdowns are inevitable for kids ages 1 to 2 because they can’t yet say, for example, “I’m frustrated because you won’t buy me fruit roll-ups,” so they make their point by throwing a fit. However, they’re not too young to learn that tantrums won’t get them what they want.

Don’t reinforce them by giving in to your child’s demands just so they’ll stop. Instead, stand firm: “No, we’re not getting that today,” and turn away. Do whatever you can to send the message that you’re not going to engage. 

“If your child doesn’t get your attention, his tantrum will stop, but you have to have more endurance then he does,” says Adiaha Spinks-Franklin, M.D., a developmental-behavioral pediatrician.

If your child doesn’t get over it, leave the store or wherever you are and remind them: “Tell Mommy what you want. Don’t kick and scream.” They may not be able to do that yet, but they’ll get the concept. Fatigue and hunger trigger meltdowns, so try not to shop with your toddler around nap or meal time.


While your child is developmentally capable of telling you how they’re feeling, they may still pitch a fit, especially if you’ve given in to tantrums before. To work tantrums out of the repertoire, be clear about your expectations before going out: “We’re going to buy eggs and milk today, not cookies.”

In the store, recognize it when they’re behaving well: “I love the way you’re helping me put things in the cart. You’re doing such a great job.” Then reward it: “Since you were such a good helper in the store, we’re going to play ‘Candy Land’ when we get home.”

School-age Kids

Tantrums are rare by now, so if your child has one, they may be having a tough time expressing complex feelings like jealousy or feeling left out.

“You should also ask yourself whether you’ve babied this child more than the others or been inconsistent with your expectations,” says Spinks-Franklin.

If you’re still baffled about why a tantrum broke out, ask your child to explain it after things calm down. If they don’t know, dig deeper. It could be a sign they need more hugs or one-on-one time with you, for example.

“All behavior is communication and the older kids get, the more complex the meaning of a tantrum can be,” Spinks-Franklin says.



Toddlers whine because they want attention and they’ve learned that using an annoying voice will get it. Don’t give in. Show them the difference between a whine and a normal tone. The next time they whine, say, “I don’t listen to that voice. Please ask me nicely.” 


If your preschooler whines to get what she wants, you’ve probably been caving in a little too often. To reverse course, tell them you won’t listen to them unless they use a big-kid voice.
    “The more kids whine, the less you should engage with them,” says David J. Schonfeld, M.D., a developmental-behavioral pediatrician.
If the whining continues, make eye contact and warn them that you’ll need to leave the store (or wherever you are) if they keep it up, then leave if you have to. 

School-age Kids

Not to point fingers, but if your school-age child is a whiner, you’re to blame. It’s time to be brutal: When the whining begins, flat out ignore it. Refuse to listen. Walk away. When they start to talk in a normal tone of voice, show them the attention they’re after with enthusiasm. 



Little kids are too egocentric to understand the give-and-take sharing involves. You can encourage your child to “take turns,” but don’t expect them to willingly give their toys to their siblings or other kids on play dates. In their mind sharing is: “I had a toy and it’s gone forever.”

At playdates, opt for activities that are easy to do together —dancing, coloring, building with blocks — to short-circuit any tussling.


Preschoolers are less self-centered than they were a year or two ago, but they’re still impulsive and from age 3 to 5, they still tend to be possessive with their favorite toys. You can help your child practice by showing them how to take turns with toys. That said, it’s fine to put away certain special things before friends come over. To encourage empathy, point out how nice it makes others — and even themselves — feel when they do share.

School-age Kids

By kindergarten, kids can share well. If your child isn’t there yet, help them practice by inviting friends over who have mastered the art of sharing so they can learn from them. Continue to talk about why sharing is a good and kind thing to do. Still, don’t expect your child to have to share special toys, such as the one they just got for their birthday, even with siblings. It’s fine if some toys are private property.



Throwing food helps your baby learn cause and effect — if they throw food from their high chair, it falls down and you’ll pick it up. Instead of getting exasperated, play along for another round or two. When you’ve had enough, say something like: “That was fun, but Mommy isn’t going to play anymore,” then stop gathering up tossed Cheerios in front of them.


Your child is old enough to understand flinging food isn’t OK, but they may still do it when they’re bored or want attention. To end the antics, tell them, “Food is for eating and it belongs on your plate.” Stay calm.

“A huge reaction from you will only reinforce the bad behavior,” Guddemi says. If your toddler keeps it up, end the meal. She can finish eating later, once she has calmed down.


Thankfully, by the time your child is 3, they won’t be tossing food on the floor to get your attention or indicate their displeasure with what you’re serving. They’ll likely use their words to level any complaints about the meal.



Unless something engages your child’s interest, expect them to be fidgety. Antsiness comes with the developmental territory. Try to work around it. For example, go to a kid-friendly restaurant early when it’s less busy (11:30 a.m. for lunch and 5 p.m. for dinner), and take along toys and crayons to keep your child engaged.


When kids reach 3 to 4, they should be able to sit contentedly for chunks of time, although how long depends on your child’s temperament. If you have a high-energy kid, that might be just 15 minutes. It’s still too soon to expect them to endure grown-up events like lengthy religious services or three-course restaurant dinners. Keep a stash of fun stuff on hand to keep them busy.

School-age Kids

By now, children should be able to sit still for longer stretches at home and at school without needing constant attention. If your child can’t, consider that your cue to help them practice at home with activities such as crafts and games. If you’re concerned about your child’s restlessness, talk to your pediatrician.


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