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Discipline for Toddlers

Kicking. Screaming. Hitting. Biting. No parent wants to see her child act like a little monster, no matter how adorable she is. But just what are you supposed to do when your child acts up? Experts say spanking isn't the answer, and there are plenty of effective ways to bring out the best in your child without using physical force. How to stop bad behavior, and make sure you and your partner agree about setting rules:
When to start disciplining your child

You can set limits even with babies, once they're about 6 months old. Tell them not to grab Mommy's eyeglasses, for instance, or to be gentle when petting the cat. Being firm and setting safety guidelines early on is the caring thing to do. By establishing boundaries, you introduce your child to the realities of the world, which has no shortage of rules. And cultivating a healthy respect for what Mom and Dad say will make it easier to enforce crucial limits later.

Setting rules

The best way to lay the groundwork for discipline is to make your house rules simple and clear, such as "No hitting" or "No climbing on the table."

Handling bad behavior

Pick your battles.

Decide whether a reaction from you is really worth it. If you come down hard on everything from whining at bedtime to biting, you'll wear everybody out. And your attempts at discipline will be far more effective if you focus on the things that really matter to you.

Say no.

If your child has done something wrong, like hit a friend, say immediately and firmly, "No hitting." If your child is old enough, you can also have her apologize. Limit your no's to actual bad behavior, though, or your child will start to tune you out. If she's doing something you don't like that's relatively harmless (she draws on her hand, for example), say something like, "Paint is for paper only."

Create consequences.

One child's time-out is another child's excuse to daydream, so find a consequence that really matters to your child. It might be taking away a privilege or having to do something she doesn't like. A child over 2 can heed a warning—"If you keep throwing sand, you'll have to come out of the sandbox." Be sure to always follow through with the consequence. Your child won't take you seriously if you don't.

Be consistent.

Kids love to test your will, and without consistency, rules become as tempting to break as a leaning Lego tower in a roomful of 2-year-olds. Stick to your rules and eventually she'll realize that the actions you don't like have consequences that she doesn't like.


Let your child know that you understand how she feels. "I know how frustrated you are. I wish we could stay at the park all day, too, but..." Just knowing you understand where she's coming from can help her calm down.

Make a deal.

If your child won't go to bed, offer to keep the hall light on. It sounds like a compromise to her, but you're not actually backing down. And instead of offering a bribe, such as a treat if she stops crying, offer rewards for good behavior: If she stays by your side at the grocery store, you'll stop at the park later.

Offer another option.

As much as possible, when your child breaks a rule, show her an acceptable alternative behavior. So when you say, "Don't dump out Mommy's purse!" follow it up by suggesting, "Let's dump out these blocks instead."

Praise the good.

The most powerful form of discipline by far is positive reinforcement—for a child of any age. The more praise you give, the more your child will want to behave. Also, try to counter each infraction ("We don't hit!") with encouragement ("You're petting the dog so gently").

Behavior you should always correct

Safety. Never waver when it comes to things like standing on the glass-top coffee table, scootering in the street, or hitting a little brother over the head.

Respecting authority figures (parents, grandparents, teachers, etc.). Rudeness toward adults is unacceptable.

Health. Don't debate whether or not your child has to brush his teeth, finish all his icky-tasting medicine, or wear sunscreen at the park.

Education. As soon as your child is in school, there should be a nonnegotiable policy on getting homework done, period.

Lying. It shouldn't be tolerated under any circumstances, whether it's a fib about taking an extra cookie or cheating on homework.

When you disagree with your partner

The quickest way to undo your authority is to be at odds with your partner over discipline rules. Kids are great at playing one parent off the other, especially during those instances when there is no prior agreed-upon punishment for misbehavior. When that happens, follow these steps:

1. Agree to hear each other out. No shouting "You are so wrong!" If your child is old enough (3 or up), you can even discuss your differing points of view in front of her (as long as you're civil).

2. Know how to shut things down if tempers do flare. Try a code word that means, "We need to discuss this elsewhere," or just say you need to walk away for five minutes.

3. Develop tiebreaker tactics for when you get seriously deadlocked. One of you can be the final decision-maker on weekends, the other on weekdays. Or you can agree to defer to the parent who swooped in on the touchy situation first.

Discipline isn't only about punishment. It's about teaching your child to follow rules, which is necessary for navigating the world. Punishment has its place, of course, but what's most important is for you to be firm, consistent, and caring in how you expect your child to act. Kids may chafe at limits and discipline, but they secretly crave both.

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