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Discipline: How Soon Should You Start?

Henry, my then 20-month-old, was a fierce competitor in his favorite game, known as High-chair Toss. Scheduled every night at dinnertime to coincide exactly with the depletion of my patience, it involved Henry's hurling bits of food from his tray, going for both speed and distance. "No, Henry, we don't throw food," I'd say. He'd look at me, then blithely fling the pasta, hitting three walls of the kitchen simultaneously (extra points). Exasperated, I'd pull him out of his high chair.

Toddler discipline seems almost an oxymoron to any mom who's tried to exert even minimal control at that age. But if you think of it less as punishment and more as a way of teaching your child what's good and safe behavior, the sooner you start, the better.

The first step: Childproof
Discipline -- for an 8-month-old or so -- is simply about conveying the meaning of "no" and taking her away from dangerous situations. So when she reaches for your cup of coffee, all you can do is say, "No. Hot!" and move it beyond her grasp.

Once your child starts to crawl, however, the equation changes dramatically. Babies are hardwired to explore their environment, which, as any mom will attest, may as well be full of piranhas for all the dangers lurking there.

The key is to balance that sense of wonder and exploration with keeping your baby safe. Childproofing your home is not only a boon to your sanity, it can also head off unnecessary battles. Rather than try to explain to a 9-month-old why she can't stick her finger in an electrical outlet, buy the super-value pack of outlet covers and let her roam freely.

Abby Margolis Newman, the mother of three boys, has written for The New York Times and e-Scholastic.

Set some rules

But childproofing can only go so far. By her third child, Diana Muller of Weston, Connecticut, thought she was an expert babyproofer, but even she was no match for her youngest, Benjamin. "At eighteen months old, he'd already figured out how to climb on a chair to reach the things we'd stashed away," she says. "One side of me was impressed -- how resourceful! -- but it was also incredibly frustrating."
Is this deliberate mischief? Not really. For a child, it's no more complicated than thinking, What happens if...? Your toddler also may be testing you to get a response, since to his mind, even negative attention is better than no attention.
Yet even at this nonverbal stage, your child can easily distinguish between your pleasure and your displeasure. "A baby learns not to touch the stove because he's afraid of losing your love -- not because he understands about being burned. Understanding cause and effect comes later, when your child is five or six, but you still need to lay the groundwork now," says Gene Beresin, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
When it comes to deciding which rules to set in your house, fewer is usually better. (Make sure they're age-appropriate, too.) That will make the limits you do set easier for your child to remember and for you to enforce, says Heidi Murkoff, coauthor of the What to Expect series and a Parenting contributing editor. For a toddler, the issue that really matters is safety -- you'll want to stop any behavior that puts him and others (including the dog and the objects in your house) in harm's way.

Learn a few techniques

Some tactics that work for the times your child does misbehave:

? Your little anarchist loves to scribble on the walls? Give her another choice. You can say, "No, we don't draw on the walls. But here's some paper you can write on." If she's unhappy with the suggestion, distract her with something else -- a look at a board book and a quick snuggle can usually do the trick.

? How do you show her that you're in charge when she has a meltdown? Most experts agree that before age 2, a time-out isn't useful. But you might try the lap hold, a modified version of it. Just sitting with your child in your arms for a few moments can often defuse an out-of-control situation.

? By the time a child is around 2, she has the memory and focus to understand you when you issue a warning. For instance, if she's throwing her ball in the living room and has ignored your repeated requests to stop, say, "If you throw the ball again, I'll take it away."
Of course, you have to follow through with your statement -- that's the way she'll learn that you really do mean what you say. Eventually she'll realize that the actions you don't like have consequences that she doesn't like.

? Save the word "no" for when it's really necessary -- when she's about to bite her playmate, for instance. Otherwise, the more you use the word, the more you dilute its impact, making it much more likely that she won't listen to you.

? Toddlers crave control, and if you give them a little, they tend to be happier. So let your child make decisions over such unimportant matters as what to wear or what she wants for breakfast, says Murkoff. You need to stand your ground when it comes to making her sit in her car seat or get her shots, but it's better in the long run to give in when she chooses those plaid leggings with the flowered top (even if it does drive you crazy).

? As important as the discipline itself is the notion of kissing and making up afterward, which tells her that you still love her even when you don't love her behavior. After you and your child have had it out, share a big hug before you move on.
And don't forget to catch her being good. The most powerful form of discipline by far is positive reinforcement  -- and that goes for a child of any age. The more positive attention you give your toddler, the fewer reasons she'll have to go after the negative kind.
So every time she breaks a rule ("Don't dump out Mommy's purse!"), try to balance it with an alternative ("Let's dump out these blocks instead"). Try to counter each infraction ("We don't hit!") with encouragement ("You're petting the dog so gently").

Remember that you're a central element in your child's science experiment and your reactions often trigger his. Then let your little Einstein get to work exploring his world.