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5 Mistakes Even Smart Moms Make

Parenting that Works 4. "Money doesn't grow on trees!"

Do you find yourself saying this at the mall as your youngster begs for the latest Bratz doll or Game Boy cartridge?   "That isn't the time to have this argument," says Edward Christophersen, Ph.D., staff psychologist at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, and author of Parenting That Works: Building Skills That Last a Lifetime (APA Books). He recommends setting limits before you leave the house. Let your children know ahead of time what you will, and won't, be buying for them. If you're consistent, eventually they will stop asking you for extra things.

Also teach kids what it means to be fiscally responsible. "Don't just give them an allowance. Have agreements on how they earn it and how they spend it," says Dr. Christophersen. Once their spending money is gone, don't supplement it.

5. "How many times have I told you...?"

It doesn't matter how this sentence ends. Most children respond to it the way Eric James, 9, of Clifton, New Jersey, does: With an eye roll and a smart-aleck answer. This frustration phrase—all of them, in fact—is a poor and typically self-defeating attempt to shape children's behavior, says Denis Donovan, M.D., medical director of the Children's Center for Developmental Psychiatry in St. Petersburg, Florida, and co-author of What Did I Just Say!?! (Henry Holt). "What the parent really wants is the desired behavior, not a verbal response, and especially not a smart-alecky one. Unfortunately, parents confuse the issue because, for them, each of these phrases has a conventional meaning, which has little, if anything, to do with the literal meaning."

If you pay attention to what you actually say to your kids, you'll be stunned by how rarely your words correspond to your intentions. "For example, if you say, ‘Hit your sister and see what happens to you!' don't be surprised if Billy hits his sister," warns Dr. Donovan.

If you want your kids to truly process what you say, you must be direct. If you ask a rhetorical question or make a principled statement instead of issuing a command, it allows your child to logically dismiss what you said, nail you on technicalities, or not even consciously register what you said.

A better approach? Say what you mean and mean what you say, Dr. Donovan advises. "If you want action, say, ‘Stop kicking your brother's chair,' or ‘Put your toys in the toy chest.'" If you are truly uncomfortable with such directness, preface it with a "Please." You'll certainly be pleased with the result.