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Afraid to Discipline

After spending ten minutes gaily kicking dozens of little wooden blocks into the farthest corners of his bedroom, your 2 1/2-year-old moves on to the kitchen and new frontiers of destruction. "Honey," you call from his room, "if you're finished with the blocks, let's pick them up."

"Mommy pick up," he replies, making no move to return.

"I'll help you," you say, "but you have to help too."

"No."

At this point, you can tell you have a better chance of twitching your nose like Samantha on Bewitched to make the blocks march back into their box than of getting your child to help clean up his mess. So you have two choices: You can pick up the blocks yourself, or you can attempt through some sort of discipline to make your toddler cooperate.

Discipline. The very word is cause for uncertainty. You know that as a parent you're supposed to set limits, to establish boundaries, as the experts are always saying. But which limits? What kind of boundaries? Is it even reasonable to expect a 2 1/2-year-old to put away his blocks?

As a matter of fact, experts recommend starting to ask children to pick up a few of their own toys by around age 2. But even if you know that, even if you understand that the main goal of discipline in the early years is to lay the groundwork for a more elaborate kind of cooperation later on, it doesn't really help you figure out what to do if your child refuses to cooperate.

For many parents, however, the hardest question isn't "How?" Instead, it's "Should I?" "If I correct my child's behavior, am I being a control freak? If I punish my child, will I make him feel unloved or alienated? Will he tell a shrink one day, 'My mother was so demanding; even when I was 2 years old, I could never do anything right'"?

The ultimate purpose of discipline isn't simply to gain control over children but to teach them cooperation, accountability, and responsibility  -- those intangible qualities that make someone a good citizen and a good companion. It's an ongoing job, and the job description changes constantly according to the age of your child. If you're anxious about it, you're in good company  -- many parents are. Here are the top three reasons parents feel this way, and how experts suggest we overcome them.

Contributing editor Margaret Renkl lives in Tennessee. She is the mother of three boys.

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