Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Toddler Discipline

I've avoided writing about this topic for a while now. It's just so contentious. And I don't feel all that qualified to dispense advice here: HB has been an incredibly easy child. But, someone asked, and so here it is .. my advice on discipline. Note that HB is now 2yrs old, so this advice relates to the "under 2" age group.

My general philosophy is that there should be few rules, but that those rules should be steadfastly enforced. I try to limit the rules to issues of safety, basic manners, and basic self-care (cleaning up after yourself).

I don't believe in corporal punishment. I don't believe in intimidation. I don't believe in belittling children for their actions. I do believe in being steadfastly consistent. If there is not imminent danger to the child or someone else, I think the tone can be loving and educational. However, there are certain "schools of thought" on discipline that really bother me. One is the "never say "no"... (sweet voice) "Honey, please put down the chainsaw". When it comes to matters of the child's (or someone else's) safety, I think a stern "No", physical restraint (holding down their arms if they are in the middle of hitting someone or throwing a toy), and/or removal from the situation are very appropriate responses. The younger the child, the more you have to rely on the tone of your voice to convey your intent. If they don't understand the words you are saying, they only have your tone to rely on. Deepen your voice and sharpen your words to make your point.

What to do vs. what not to do
While I don't subscribe to the "never say no" philosophy, I do believe that you have to give children an alternate to the undesired behavior. Kids do not learn the concept of opposites until much later. So, simply saying "don't throw your toy", doesn't necessarily mean that they can come up with an alternate behavior by themselves.

I like to use the template: (stern tone) We don't do X! (sweet tone) Why, and what to do instead.

Children need to be taught that their actions have consequences. Even in non-discipline-related scenarios, you should use active words to describe the situation to them:
Wrong (passive wording): "did your toy fall on the floor?"
Right (child's action caused consequences): "did you throw your toy on the floor, and now you can't reach it?"

With respect to discipline, the consequences for their actions should be immediate, appropriate, and consistent. Immediate, because young children do not have a long enough memory to correlate actions now with a later punishment. I.e. if you throw your toy, you can't have ice cream tonight. Missing ice cream several hours later will seem arbitrary to them, and will not be a deterrent for throwing their toy next time. Appropriate, to make it easier for them to correlate action with consequence. I.e. the punishment for throwing a toy is to have the toy taken away. Consistent, again to make it easier for them to correlate. I.e. the punishment for throwing a toy is always to have the toy taken away. Not take the toy away one time, and getting no ice cream next time.

I subscribe to the "one warning, immediate consequence" method.

* We don't stand on the couch/chair. You can get an owie. Your bum goes on the chair, your feet go on the floor. Consequence: removal from the couch/chair.
* We don't stand on our toys. You can get an owie. We can stand on the floor or on a stool. Consequence: toy taken away.
* We don't throw our toys. You can give someone an owie. Please put your toys down gently. Consequence: toy taken away.
* We don't throw our food. Food goes on the plate or in your mouth. Consequence: Food taken away.

Hurting others - teaching empathy:
Almost all children go through a period where they hit/bite/or generally try to hurt other people. From what I've read, this is an exertion of their power over others. They like their ability to elicit a response. And hurting a person usually elicits a strong response! I think the key to curbing this behavior is to teach empathy. The idea that their actions hurt other people is not immediately apparent to children. This is something that needs to be taught. Again, I use the "don't do X, why, and what to do instead" method. I also use a strong tone to emphasize that this is a really bad behavior.
Example: (very stern tone) No! We don't hit people! (pause) (sweet tone) Hitting makes "so-and-so" feel bad. Can you give them gentle pats, and say "sorry?" When they comply, heap praise, "Good job giving gentle pats! You made "so-and-so" feel better!".

I really believe in the Montessori philosophy of making children as independent as possible as early as possible. There are several examples with respect to self-care. Here's some of the things that HB does for herself:
* When entering the house, shoes and coat are taken off (with help if necessary), and she places her own shoes on the shoe rack, and her own coat on the hook.
* After eating, she washes her own hands and face and table with a wet washcloth.
* She wipes up her own spills.
* She throws away her own trash.

She does all these things happily and willingly 99% of the time. The way to accomplish this is to have the attitude that this is just the way things are done. Start by giving them the option of doing it themselves or having it done for them. "Do you want to hang your coat, or do you want Mommy to do it?". When they opt to do it themselves, heap praise on them. "Good job putting away your own coat!!". Before long, they will opt to do it themselves all the time. Even when we forget, HB reminds us that she has to hang her coat on the hook. Occasionally, when she arrives at home super hungry or super tired, she refuses to do it. We don't allow her to leave the entry way until she does it herself. She usually complies within a short period of time especially if we entice her with the things she can do once she complies. "After you put your coat away, you can go play with your toys."

When should you start teaching these behaviors? As soon as they are physically capable of it. HB was putting away her coat as soon as she could walk and carry her coat without falling over. You will be surprised at how early they can do these things. You can always try them out, see how it goes, and if it seems like they just don’t have the coordination to do it yet, try again in a few weeks. HB was saying “please” (using baby signs) long before she could talk. And, she was wiping her own face after meals as soon as she could use a spoon (albeit I had to do the final clean up myself, but she would put the washcloth to her face and make a decent attempt). It’s amazing how much pride and happiness kids have when they are able to do things for themselves. They grin from ear to ear. For me, it’s one of the best parts of parenting to see her gain skills and for her to be so proud of her accomplishments.

HB started testing the waters with tantrums around 18mo. From what I've read there are several theories as to why children throw tantrums:
* exerting independence - the best way to deal with this is to encourage the children to be as independent as possible as early as possible. Teach them to do things for themselves, and allow them to do things for themselves as often as possible. This will eliminate many opportunities for the tantrums right off the bat.
* they feel out of control - they are feeling emotions which they don't understand, can't control, and don't have words to describe. The way I like to deal with this is another template. Use your sweetest, most empathetic tone since this has a calming effect. Get them talking, using yes or no questions.
1) get down on their level and get them physically close. I usually crouch down and sit her on my knee.
2) give them words for their feelings "are you sad because mommy took away your toy?"
3) empathize - (in a loving, empathetic tone) "I know you're sad. It's okay to be sad. Are you sad?"
4) give reasons emphasizing the child's action and consequences - "Did you throw your toy? (wait for response) "So mommy had to take it away. You can give someone an owie when you throw your toys"
5) distract - "let's play with this (other) toy!" (But whatever you do, don't give them the original toy back!)

Note: Consistency is key. Don't give in! If they learn that you won't give in, then tantrums disappear rather quickly. If they learn that sometimes you will give in, then you are locked in a battle of wills, and there is no telling how long they will hold out waiting for you to finally give in.

Public humiliation:
When kids start to be more socially aware, they can be embarrassed when reprimanded in public. I find that they won't comply when they are feeling humiliated or put on the spot in front of other people. When possible, do not reprimand in public. Instead, you can kneel down and whisper in their ear. You will get more cooperation without compromising the effect of the discipline.

Adapt to the circumstances:
If the child is over tired (didn't sleep well, didn't have a good nap), you will have to give them some leeway. When children are sleepy, their impulse control is one of the first things to go. So, there are times when they just won't (or can't) comply. Also note your own mood. Are you light on patience that day? It is better to avoid a battle of wills if you think you aren't up to following through. In these cases, ask yourself whether the teaching lesson is necessary (i.e. a matter of safety). You can choose to ignore a behavior, like you just didn't see it, distract them with another activity (without mentioning the infraction), or physically remove them from the situation (again without mentioning the infraction). Once you mention or acknowledge the infraction, you have to respond appropriately or children will learn that sometimes the rules don't have to be followed. As long as you are consistent 99% of the time, you can choose to not fight the battles those 1% of the time by not acknowledging the bad behavior.

Related Posts:
Discipline - Are You Good Cop or Bad Cop?
Be the Voiceover for Your Kids' Lives
Better Than Saying Goodnight


  1. hi josie,

    i do agree parenting a toddler is difficult task

  2. @Neha - it really can be difficult sometimes! But, I've found that as you establish simple rules and are very consistent, it gets easier and easier.


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