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updated 6/9/2011 3:34:28 PM ET 2011-06-09T19:34:28

If you're a parent, you're tired. While one might be childless and tired -- after, say, a day of shoe shopping (not that I miss having the time and money for such frivolity or anything) -- having kids means being tired all the time, not just for a few hours after that trip to the mall.And when you're tired (which is always; see above), and the kids are, you know, provoking you, and it's only 7:30 in the morning and you've got miles to go before you sleep, you're inevitably going to have to make some executive decisions regarding which battles to engage in and which to concede. Do you let the 5-year-old wear her Barbie nightie to day camp, or do you bar the door until she puts on shorts and a T-shirt? Should you point out to the 11-year-old that there's no way he took a shower (as he claims), or do you pretend not to notice the black crescents under his fingernails that tell a different story? After all, you have only a certain amount of time, energy, and patience, and you can't afford to blow it on stuff that doesn't really matter.If giving in sounds like a cop-out, believe you me, it's not. In fact (and here's the part where we tell you that what's easier for you is actually good for your kids), when they see you work out what's really important, they learn how to work out for themselves what's really important. It's a win-win. You get to save your breath and what's left of your energy, and your children get a lesson in what it means to be a reasonable person.

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Kristen Arnold, a mother of four in Westboro, MA, recalls a dinner at which her 7-year-old asked for two forks, one for his rice and one for his meat. Her husband's feeling was "you have to adapt -- everyone gets one fork," she says. Arnold, however, saw infinite value in avoiding a 45-minute tantrum that would spoil the meal. She and her husband discussed it calmly at the table, weighing the pros and cons. In the end, Arnold won out, and all the kids got a good lesson in considering all sides of a conflict and listening to others respectfully. "Now they'll come back to me and negotiate," she says."You want to be a positive force in the way your children look at life, so work out a deal whenever possible," says Paul Fink, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at Temple University School of Medicine, in Philadelphia. If you don't, a smart kid will look for a way around you, which will likely involve secrecy or lies. Besides, choosing not to engage in every little skirmish means fewer arguments, plain and simple.What's often tricky, of course, is figuring out the "is this worth fighting for?" part -- especially if you've got to think fast. For starters, it's important to note that there are certain developmental stages at which kids naturally assert their need for independence and individuality (say, by dressing like a circus freak). It helps to view the push-back as less about defying you and more about saying "I gotta be me!" says Bonnie Maslin, Ph.D., a psychologist in private practice in New York City and the author of Picking Your Battles.For help with those times when, say, a crabby kiddie simply isn't in the mood to cooperate, or when you feel strongly that a child do/eat/wear something that said child feels equally strongly that he should not have to do/eat/wear, we got the advice of parents who've done several tours of duty.

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When to stand your ground

Let's start with the simple ones. All the parents interviewed for this story cited a few battles they always choose to engage in, no matter how pooped they are. They have to do with a child's safety or the safety of others, involvement in violence, and any kind of behavior that could land a kid in juvie. Others mentioned the intentional infliction of emotional harm. At minimum, you have to keep your kid from hurting himself or those around him, however you define "hurt."

Then there are those clashes that involve your family's values. Principles you may hold dear (patience with others and respect for religion, for instance) aren't exactly top of mind when you're 20 minutes late for the service and your 9-year-old demands to wear his wet suit to church. That's why it's a good idea to sit down one evening and list the ideals that really matter to you, and which family situations may test them. Consider how you want your child to interact with others and what would make you the most proud. You'll find there are few things worth arguing about, but that the ones that remain -- your core values -- are critical."The most important thing in our family is that we treat others with respect," says Michelle Wegner, a mom of three girls, ages 10, 9, and 5, in Granger, IN. The kids have been fighting and name-calling recently, so Wegner started docking them a dollar each out of their piggy banks whenever they cross the line.

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To Christina Alborn, a mom of three in Phoenix, it's important that her children grow up "with a sense of appreciation instead of entitlement," she says. To that end, the battles she and her husband take on have to do with expecting their kids to earn toys and privileges many of their friends receive as a matter of course. "On my list are respect, kindness, inclusion, and truthfulness. If my husband or I caught one of our girls behaving unethically, we'd certainly take her to task. We'd like them not to be wasteful. And we want them to at least try to do for themselves before asking for help. We usually agree on which battles to fight, although we may have different reasons. For instance, he believes we should always fight the get-the-girls-to-clean-up-after-themselves battle, which for me has less to do with the dried-up macaroni under the table than with the larger principle, that they don't have servants. For him, it has as much to do with the dried-up macaroni."Word of caution: Keep your family-values list to a reasonable handful. If it's way long, you're going to be fighting -- a lot. Yes, it might feel like your child is carrying a sign that says 'I reject every decent thing my parents tried to teach me' when he leaves the house wearing stained jeans, ratty Vans, and a skunky hoodie. But when it comes down to it, odds are 'I want my kid to dress in the clothing I think looks nice' wouldn't make your list of core values. Which brings us to…...

What else is worth fighting for

There are things you want your child to learn that don't fall under the exalted heading of "values" -- for example, a taste (or tolerance!) for brown food. Still, you might argue with her about this if you're going to a friend's for dinner and you feel it's important that she try new things and/or that it's courteous to at least try what the host prepares. Or not. It depends on many things, including your energy level, your child's temperament, and whether it's a battle you can win -- but you can usually figure it out by asking just two simple questions.

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1. Will this battle fight itself? Just the other morning, my daughter Sasha, 6, turned her cute little nose up at the oatmeal with apples and raisins she had asked for. My husband began to argue about wasting food, but then stopped and said, "Fine, but no snacks. The next thing you eat will be lunch at school." Sure enough, she was hungry and grumpy until noon -- she asked for a snack on the way to school. She still futzes with her food sometimes, but after a quick reminder about the Battle of the Oatmeal, she usually reconsiders.

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2. Can you live with it? If something your kid wants to do isn't going to hurt anyone and won't make you terribly unhappy, then try to let her. Say, for instance, "Peanut butter and cheese sandwiches really gross me out, but I know that they're your favorite, and they do have lots of protein, so I'll just try not to look."

What you should do instead of fight

As any good leader knows, war is a last resort. If you can resolve something by negotiation and compromise, do so. Some tactics:

  • Engage in diplomacy. Your fourth-grader wants to walk to school alone. You may not feel it's safe, but rather than squabble, see if you can come up with a compromise that lets him save face, such as driving him to a point a block away from school and letting him walk from there.
  • Put the ball in your child's court. Even if you're thinking "Not on your life! Go back up and change!" try saying, "I know that you like to wear jeans, but when we go out, it's really important to me that you dress up a bit." Then leave it to your child to decide if she wants to scrimmage.
  • Know your limits. When you're on your fourth tour of duty, you may want to let a battle you would usually fight go just this once. You needn't cede all the territory you've won in the past. After giving in to one of her kids, Kimberly Wilson, a mom of three boys in Plano, TX, makes it clear why she let him do something she normally wouldn't have. Bonnie Maslin agrees with this: "You're putting the child on notice that you know what's going on. You don't have to be perfectly consistent. You're not a machine."
  • Be a good winner. "I do try to always listen to my kids' points," says Wilson, "because when I was their age, no one wanted to hear my feelings. They know, 'Hey, my parents do care and will take my feelings into account.'"

Stephanie Dolgoff is Parenting's editor-at-large. Check out her blog at www.formerlyhot.com.

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