Commandments 1 - 4
Thou shalt render unto an infant that which is an infant's, and to a toddler that which is a toddler's.
Discipline strategies should be age-related. You can't "spoil" a 3-month-old by picking him up when he cries. Infants need to know that their caregivers are responsive to their needs and wants and that hunger, discomfort, and, yes, even loneliness will be addressed.
For most children, discipline first becomes a real issue between 12 and 18 months. They're up and walking at that point, the word "no" is likely to be understood (and used), and most parents start to recognize that mischievous little self-conscious twinkle in the child's eyes that says, I know I'm not supposed to do this, but I'm going to do it anyway.
My younger son was particularly adept at this -- he always knew exactly which button he was pushing when he messed up his older brother's chess game. At this age, discipline is mostly about patience, firmness, and endless repetition. Say "no" firmly and take away the problematic object, move the child away from the danger zone, or put the biter down and leave him alone.
Know thy child -- and thyself.
Some kids, from an astonishingly young age, seem to be vastly entertained by rules and penalties and parental emotion. I've discovered that often you'll do best if you treat discipline as a game you're all playing together. My younger son, the one with the mischievous twinkle in his eye, often seems to be holding back his amusement when I'm at my most stern. He's 8, and I can't help feeling he thinks it's quite a giggle when Mom comes on strong.
Other kids are easily crushed if a parent seems at all angry. As you get to know your child's personality and temperament, you also learn more about your own. There are patient parents and short-fused parents, easygoing parents and rigid parents, and even though every advice book counsels consistency, many of us go through all these different incarnations -- sometimes in a single car ride.
Pick thy battles.
If you turn every transgression into a grand opera, you'll risk losing the parental high ground. Changing a child's behavior can be a long, hard slog -- for you, for her, for the rest of the family -- so save your energy for the lessons she really has to learn.
Let's say you're working hard on table manners, reminding your preschooler at breakfast, lunch, and dinner to chew with her mouth closed and use her napkin and not her sleeve. Don't distract from those rules by then arguing with her about, say, her insistence on dipping her carrots in ketchup. Or suppose your 5-year-old's been put in a time-out twice for clobbering his brother (assuming that you, unlike me, understand how to put a child in a time-out). You shouldn't get on his case about wiping his nose for now, especially if no one else in kindergarten seems to have mastered nose wiping yet. (After all, if you can pick your battles, why can't he pick his nose?)
When thou hast picked thy battles, be prepared to fight them over and over and over.
There's just no way around this. We teach our kids by repetition, or, to use the technical term, nagging. When you've decided what it is you want your child to do -- or, more likely, not to do -- you'll have to say it again and again. For many children, it takes approximately 2 million repetitions before they start to recognize, spontaneously, that something's not okay before they say it or do it, before they pass the point of no return.
I'm not just talking about the "Say thank you" prompts or the "Did you wash your hands after you used the bathroom?" queries, which become so automatic for some of us that we're constantly at risk of using them on our spouses. I also mean the harder-to-learn rules of acceptable social behavior, like "Use your words" -- a catchphrase that many of us utter at those moments when a young child resorts to screaming, crying, hitting, biting, or outright mass destruction. But repetition works: I've had to live with the humiliation of having my kids, well trained from their years in daycare, remind me to use my "inside voice" instead of yelling. You can hear 3-year-olds on the playground admonishing each other to take turns or even, in your more progressive preschool environments, prissily informing one another that "That behavior is not acceptable" or, more casually, "That's not okay."