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The Golden Rules Of Toddler Discipline

When 2-year-old Kendall Isaak sees a toy she wants at the store, her mom suggests they put it on her birthday wish list. "When we get home, we write it down together," says Kristy Isaak, of Manhattan Beach, CA. "Kendall doesn't have a fit because she knows I take the time to listen to her when she wants something." At the same time, Isaak avoids caving in and creating a greed-monster.

The way you respond to your toddler's behavior shapes her future actions. Now the rub: How do you teach good behavior to a not-yet-rational, nonverbal child, whose understanding of the finer concepts—such as manners, sharing, and empathy, not to mention personal safety—is primitive to nonexistent?

Start with a lot of patience and practice, and follow some simple rules of discipline, and before you know it, your tyrannical toddler will be a pleasant preschooler.

From the Parenting Guide to Your Toddler by Paula Spencer, published by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

Rule 1—Accentuate the Positive

It's easy to fall into the habit of simply reacting to your child's misbehavior, forever intervening and correcting when something goes amiss. But you'll have better success if you actively reinforce good behavior—since your child prizes your approval above all else. Give him hugs when he's behaving. Praise him by saying things like, "I appreciate how you put your puzzle back on the shelf when you were done."

Rule 2—Prevent Problems

Removing sharp objects, breakables and enticing plants from your child's environment wards off potential mishaps. Also avoid situations that will cause trouble: trying to run one more errand when it's already past naptime, wheeling a hungry tyke past the candy-filled checkout counter.

Another way to minimize the odds of a tussle: Offer helpful reminders before things go awry. Before every bath, for example, you might gently remind her, "The rule is, if you splash water outside of the tub, you have to come out."

Rule 3—Set Limits

All kids need clear, consistent limits to define the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. In fact, they crave them to feel secure in their world.

At first, defining and enforcing limits may not seem necessary. What harm is it, you might ask yourself, if your 12-month-old pulls your books off the shelf or your 18-month-old neglects to say "please"? The answer: If you don't approve of a behavior now—even if your child looks comically cute as he's defying you—you won't like it after a few dozen times, either. He's trying to figure out what's okay and what's not. It's your job to tell him.

It's easy to excuse toddler transgressions by saying, "Oh, he's just a little guy" or "She won't understand if I say no." But toddlers are smarter than you may think they are. With your help and patience, they're capable of learning the difference between right and wrong.

Rule 4—Be Firm

Doug Dunn, a father in Valley Forge, PA, says, "I'm good at saying no, but with my daughter, Taylor, who's 2, I always want to say yes. I'm tempted to spoil her, but I've learned that when you give in once, on, say, buying a balloon at the store, she'll want one every time."

Certainly, indulgence has its place in parenthood. But over time, a lack of firmness tends to backfire. If you don't enforce limits, you deprive your child of understanding how you expect her to behave. Rather than making her feel liberated, the opposite occurs. She feels frightened and confused.

If you're too lenient, your child is also apt to take advantage of you. She'll soon discover which buttons to push to get the response that she desires. And you can be sure she'll push them again and again. Better to make it clear that you're in charge—not your child.

Rule 5—Be Realistic

Otherwise, you set yourself up for failure. One-year-olds can barely sit still for 15 minutes, let alone for an hour at the table while the family eats. "We let Tiffany, who's 16 months old, wander around before a meal at a restaurant," says Ziette Hayes, of Spring Valley, NY.

Do increase your expectations as your child grows. For example, while a 12-month-old shouldn't be required to use "please" and "thank you," an 18-month-old with a 50-word vocabulary is capable of learning to say them.

Rule 6—Aim for Consistency

Once you make a rule, enforce it. Inconsistencies confuse a learning child. If it was all right to dump sand out of the sandbox last week, why are you so mad about it now?

Try to follow through on your rules in a predictable fashion. If you say that it will be time to leave the playground after your child goes down the slide two more times, then do so. Don't wait for him to make three more trips, or ten; the next time you're ready to leave after "two more times," you probably won't be taken seriously.

Of course, it's impossible to be 100 percent consistent in all things, all the time. There's room for exceptions. You might let your child bounce on the sofa—something ordinarily verboten—when he's trapped inside on a rainy day, or allow her to eat her snack in the living room instead of the kitchen during a playdate with her pals. Explain why a deviation from the norm is special and just for that day.

Rule 7—Stay Cool

Your disciplinary message will have a much greater impact if you deliver it in a calm, rational manner. Yes, this is easier said than done. It can be a challenge to curb your temper when your 1-year-old has just written with permanent marker on the kitchen wall, or your 2-year-old has unspooled an entire roll of toilet paper. Raising one's voice is a natural reaction, but yelling both degrades a child and makes you a poor role model. Plus, if you shout a lot, a toddler may tune you out or think it's funny and do mischievous things just to get a rise out of you.

On the other hand, a too-timid response can be as ineffective as shouting. Sounding too mild or uncertain may dilute your message. Avoid couching commands as questions: "Stop jumping on the bed, okay, honey?" or "Do you want to go to sleep now?"

Rule 7—Be Brief

The best way to get your message across to a toddler is to use as few words as possible. There's no need, for instance, to stray into a medical explanation of why sticking dried beans up one's nose is a bad idea. A young child benefits most from short, to-the-point messages: "Hot." "Walk, don't run." " We don't do that." "Biting hurts."

Rule 9—Set a Good Example

You've most likely heard about the mother who slaps her child's hand as she scolds, "No hitting!" And grabbing is another negative behavior parents unwittingly demonstrate to young kids. If your child is clutching something you don't want her to have, try not to just snatch it away from her. It's better to calmly ask her to give you the object in a no-nonsense tone while holding out your hand for it.

Rule 10—Monitor Moods

When it comes to discipline, "One size fits all" definitely doesn't apply to small children: Some easygoing toddlers respond well to low-key reminders and a warning. Other kids may need more stringent limits; if you give in once, they'll take advantage of it later.

As you discipline your little one, remember that you're not just helping him learn how to behave: You're also teaching him what to expect from his world, and what it expects from him in return.

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