"Bedtime around our house always degenerates into an absolute shambles," writes a mother in Wheaton.

"It gets dragged out until 10 or even 11 o'clock and leaves my husband and me too tired and without time to ourselves. We have a 4 1/2-year-old son and a six-month-old daughter. It usually starts out after dinner, with us telling Matthew to pick up his room and put his toys away because bedtime is getting close. He dawdles, plays with the toys instead of putting them away or complains that he's too tired to do it, or that it's too much for him to do alone. He says he needs help.

"This last one is often true, though I don't think his room is too hard to keep clean. He hs appropriate places to put everything, but he usually has everything out, scattered on the floor and I can see where the sheer 'mass of mess' would overwhelm a 4 1/2.

"So we end up helping, which means we end up doing it, while trying to encourage him to clean up. Then it's story time, which we're in no mood for and I'm sure he knows it. If it's bath night, that makes things even worse.

He's very excitable and hard to calm down. Most, if not all, things that are suggested to calm kids down frequently serve to excite him more.

"By now he's slap-happy, or whiny and then the baby wakes up. Problem-solving involing him is useless, and to solve the problem with him at another time is useless too, since he simply walks away or says, "pouf." That's his magician's way of making undersirables go away. He says it to things like vegatables or me when I say something he doesn't want to hear.

"He has opportunity for all sorts of activity -- backyard play, nursery school. I try to suggest creative indoor activities and let him do as he likes within limits, though there is a lack of suitable playmates in our neighborhood.

"How can we make bedtime more 'short and sweet' so that we can spend more positive time with the kids and with each other? It's out of hand and we just can't seem to see a solution because we're right in the middle."

A: We've been there, sweetie; we hear every word you're saying.

It takes so long to figure out the tricks of child care, and for sure you can't find the answers at the end of the day.

It's hard to believe it, but we invite the behavior we get. Unless a child has some hidden physical problem that makes him act erratically, a parent encourages poor behavior by permitting it; by talking sternly but acting amused; by sounding proud when comparing the latest horror stories with a friend, or by that most common error, by giving a child more attention for being bad than for being good.

That's why it's really your behavior, and not Matthew's, that has to be different. As one wise lady told us, if one person changes, the other will have to change too.

Begin by talking to Matthew -- a brisk, I-love-you, no-nonsense talk -- in the morning, and over so fast he won't even have time to say "pouf." Tell him you've been expecting too much of him at night (and you have). Now he is to put his things away when he's done with them, rather than at bedtime when he's tired. Tell him it's all right if he forgets a few things -- no one's perfect -- but if he leaves too many on the floor, it's a sign that he has more than he needs.

When Matthew still leaves his toys on the floor during the day (and he will), that's fine. Simply put some of them away for him -- into some closet or container or a burlap sack, out of reach -- but don't make a scene. Don't draw attention to them; don't threaten; just pick them up when you pass his room. Pouf, like magic, they're gone. At first he won't even miss them.

In the late afternoon, give your son a jolt of protein -- like a half-dozen apple slices smeared with peanut butter. It's a good way to keep a child fairly calm at bedtime, because it keep his blood sugar level high until his dinner has had time to work.

A half-hour before betime, you and your husband have Matthew pick out a book, then take him to the kitchen so he can set the timer for 15 minutes and storytime. After that, the three of you go to this room. Even a tidy mid-Four, whoever he is, is too young to clean his room alone, and besides, he feels like such a slavey. That's why we think you should help him -- the way you would help any friend -- and without waiting for his poor and pitful routine. If you and your husband don't mind the work, after awhile Matthew won't either.

At first, of couse, he won't do much, which you will ignore, but when he stops to play, simply pick the toy out of his hand, without saying anything, and put it away. Then ask him to do one or two specific jobs: to put the trucks in their line or to take the toys off the bed. A choice not only makes him feel independent, but any job is easier if it is broken into parts.

If he won't do anything, you and your husband will slow down so much the timer rings before you're done. But with Matthew's help you should finish in time for the story. If not, a kiss will have to do after you have hurriedly done the work. He will holler, but there's no rule that says a parent has to read a bedtime story.

To deal with Mattew's tears, kiss him goodnight, tuck him in bed -- and let him cry. We seldom advocate this, but a bad cycle has to be broken.

While you will attend to the baby if she wakes up, dear Matthew gets short shrift.

Don't answer, don't go to him when he calls and don't drop your adult conversation when he comes into the room.

Just pick him up, and kiss him again and put him back in bed, again and again. No conversation, no spanking, no notice, no threats. Just "pouf." And if he gets up, plays in his room and throws all his toys on the floor, ignore him. In the morning, the floor will be bare, because you will have picked up the toys later and put them in that sack.

It won't take Matthew long to get the message, especially if you show him lots of attention during the day when he's good, and if you let an old toy magically return to the shelf when he has put a toy away.

Matthew isn't the only one who can say "pouf."