Q: My children, ages 4, 3 and 2, squabble over the most minor things -- what time a TV show is on, what store a toy was bought at, what age they will be at the next birthday -- to the point that it drives me crazy. They go back and forth:'did too,' 'did not,' etc. If I ignore the arguing, it almost always escalates into someone crying and/or someone hurting someone else. Any suggestions?
Kelley Johnson, Eagan, Minn.
A: The most immediate thing you can do to preserve household sanity is separate the children as soon as they begin to argue, several parents say.
"After a while they'll want to play with each other again, and they'll think twice about the fighting," says Retha Dunn of Buffalo, N.Y.
The separating should be done with minimal talking. "The more she watches and the more she fusses, the worse the arguing will be," says Mona Stern, of Anderson, Ind. "They really will fight less if they don't succeed in getting Mom involved."
Once you have a coping strategy, take a broader look at the situation, suggests Barb Kreuze, of Minneapolis.
"If the mother can begin to recognize the symptoms and change what is going on, maybe she can stop it before it starts," Ms. Kreuze says. "She can change the mix of toys or arrange to give them someone their own age to play with. There is just too much difference between children 4 and 2."
Continuing in the distraction mode, one mother from Willoughby, Ohio, suggests steering the children's conversation toward happier topics.
"For example, when they fight over TV, you could say, 'That is such an interesting show, I like the character,' and so on," Teri Schenk says. "It seems to elicit pleasant, constructive conversation from the children. It has worked well for me."
While these strategies may help, parents also need to begin laying a foundation for the long term that will enable their children to work out differences on their own.
"Parents need to begin the gradual process of developing a capacity for empathy and self-control in their children," says Cathy Tempelsman of New York, author of "Child-Wise: A Reassuring Guide to the Battles and Behaviors that Can Come Between You and Your Child" (Hearst Books, $23).
Start by asking your child some questions after everyone has calmed down.
"Ask the 4-year-old if he likes to play with a child who hits," Ms. Tempelsman says. "Ask him how he thinks his sister feels after he hits her."
Next, acknowledge the child's feelings and set clear limits for behavior.
"Say something like, 'I understand that you were very angry, but you still can't hit her,' " Ms. Tempelsman suggests.
Don't underestimate the importance of this step even though you may not see results for months or even longer.
Another thing parents can do is praise and reward their children when they do play nicely, even if it's just for five minutes.
While a reporter at the Miami Herald, Beverly Mills developed this column after the birth of her son, now 5. Ms. Mills and her husband currently live in Raleigh, N.C., and also have a 3-year-old daughter.