Discipling a child, especially challenging one, can bring out the best and worst in us as parents. It's hard not to get frustrated when your infant keeps throwing his food -- or hitting his brother -- after being asked many times to stop. But it can also make us better parents. That's because discipline begins with trust. The child who trusts his mom or dad to give him food and comfort when he needs it will also trust them when they say, "Don't touch!" And that's also why, for children under age 2, discipline is less about time-outs and punishments than it is about building your child's faith in you. For me, that means responding to his cries, "wearing" him in a sling or carrier, and spending lots of cuddle time together.
Of course, if it were as simple as that, you wouldn't be reading this article. Even the most connected parents and babies have their trying moments. But understanding a behavior from your child's perspective will help you react appropriately to guide her behavior. On one occasion, our then-toddler, Lauren, impulsively grabbed a carton of milk out of the refrigerator, dropped it on the floor and burst into howls. Instead of scolding her or being angry about the mess, my wife, Martha, talked to Lauren calmly and sensitively about what had happened. When I asked her how she managed to handle the situation so calmly, Martha said, "I asked myself, 'If I were Lauren, how would I want my mother to respond?'"
Sometimes, getting out of yourself and into your child saves mental strain. So the next time your tot does something that frazzles your last nerve, remind yourself of my discipline mantra: Get behind the eyes of your baby. When you do that, you'll (almost!) always get it right.
At a loss for how to deal with specific frustrating situations? After eight kids and more than 40 years as a practicing pediatrician, I've learned a few discipline tactics.
Touching or Grabbing Dangerous Stuff
Why they do it Curious tots are always looking for things to pull, push, grab, drop and throw, whether it's your cell phone or the hot oven door. Exploring the world through touching and mouthing is the way babies learn.
How to react: Instead of the incessant "No, no, no!" (which just plants those words into your baby's budding vocabulary), give a personal "Not for Bobby..." When trying to distract and divert 14-month-old Lauren from danger or mischief, we'd call out, "Lauren!" Hearing her name took her by surprise and caused her to momentarily forget her quest. Once we had her attention, we'd quickly redirect her interest before she got into trouble.
Give your young explorer word associations to help him sort out what he may and may not touch. Say "yes touch" for safe things, "no touch" for dangerous items, and "soft touch," "pet" and "pat" for faces and animals. To tame the impulsive grabber, try encouraging the "one-finger touch." For hot kitchen objects, fireplaces and the like, try "hot touch" or "owie touch." (And of course, keep pots cooking on the back burners and other appliances out of reach.)
It's not only important to show your baby what is off limits, but to show her what is hers at the same time. For example, if you're in the kitchen chopping veggies with your knife and your 20-month-old is so fascinated that she tries to join the fun, say: "Not for Morgan. This is Mommy's knife. Here is Morgan's spoon." This technique is called substitute and redirect, which you probably already do instinctively, offering her a replacement toy when you take away something she can't have. So suppose she grabs a breakable vase. Instead of snapping, "Don't grab!" as you snatch the vase away, which is bound to trigger an angry protest, say, "Not for Erin," as you take the vase from one hand while putting a toy in the other.