You have given your baby a gentle beginning – you learned his cues and held him when he wanted to be close to you; you offered him milk from your breasts; you enjoyed the special moments of closeness as he fell asleep in your arms; you ignored the critics who cautioned, ‘you will spoil him’. However, now the biddable baby in the bunny rug has become a toddler with attitude, and you are wondering, have we created a discipline problem, after all?
There is so much confusion and fear around the issue of discipline. Really, it is simple: the word discipline is derived from Latin, ‘to teach’. Almost certainly, by not responding to a baby’s cries, you will teach him not to cry. Almost certainly, you will also teach him there is no point reaching out to another human being – that he can’t make a difference (to his discomfort/pain/hunger/thirst/loneliness), so what is the use of trying. Consider, how many adults do you know who live their lives believing – what is the use – I can’t make a difference, anyway? This is learned helplessness.
Discipline Is Not Punishment
As children grow, discipline is often equated with punishment. Almost certainly, smacking a child, giving him ‘time out’ or so-called ‘logical consequences’ will teach the child to stop undesirable behaviour – for now. But ‘goodness’ achieved through punishment will only be superficial and temporary because it is based on threats and fear. Smacking a child is also likely to teach him that it is OK to lash out at others – especially if they are smaller and more vulnerable. Almost certainly, this ‘goodness’ will only last as long as the child is small enough to fear the adult who punishes him.
We can set up power struggles, even with babies – or we can teach our children real ‘goodness’ that lasts: responding to babies’ cues (cries are often late cues) and holding them is not ‘spoiling’ or ‘giving in’ (the language of the power struggle), but teaching them to love. This, in turn sets up a strong foundation for discipline that is intrinsic because it is based on trust and mutual respect.
If you are the parent of a toddler, your role as ‘teacher’ can be a challenge – at this stage you aren’t dealing with a potentially, reasonable, miniature adult. Toddlers have short attention spans, immature nervous systems (sensitive children may be easily overstimulated by exposure to background noise (i.e. television, or bright/ fluorescent lighting, shopping centres etc. can be overwhelming), emotional needs (that aren’t easy to articulate with a limited vocabulary) and a variety of physical needs (hunger; tiredness; possible food allergies or sensitivities to substances such as sugar, caffeine, chemicals etc), as well as insatiable curiosity (this is how they learn). These factors all affect their behaviour.
Toddlers (and older children) learn the limits by testing them. It is normal for toddlers to assert their developing independence by saying ‘no’ or ‘escaping’. This doesn’t mean you will thwart their development by setting limits. In fact, now is the time to gently lay the foundations of discipline.
Bearing in mind that discipline means ‘to teach’ (not punish), here are 9 great tips to help you teach your toddler the finer points of ‘good’ behaviour:
Toddler Discipline Tip #1: Keep Your Expectations Realistic
Toddlers don’t understand concepts like ‘hurry’, ‘tidy’ and ‘wait’, and ‘taking turns’ or ‘sharing’ depend on developmental readiness, not parental demands. Keep teaching, but be patient.
Toddler Discipline Tip #2: Notice The Good Things
Toddlers like to please the people they love, and they love attention. Comment positively and give hugs when you notice good behaviour – and you will get more of it.
Toddler Discipline Tip #3: Acknowledge Your Child’s Feelings and Teach Him To Label Them
When children can express their feelings verbally and feel ‘heard’, they are less likely to lash out physically.
Toddler Discipline Tip #4: Keep Rules To A Minimum
Children learn the rules more quickly when there aren’t too many of them. The more you say “no” the less effective it becomes – and the more likely your tot is to say “no” to YOU! And if we keep changing our minds on the little ’no’s’ kids learn not to take us seriously on the big ‘NO!’. Make the environment as safe as possible, so that “no” can be saved for things that REALLY matter and follow through: it is better to say, “yes” in the first place, than to change your mind for peace. Remember, ‘maybe’ means yes to a toddler (and most of us too!).
Toddler Discipline Tip #5: Create A Diversion
Divert your toddler from potentially harmful or dangerous situations by giving her something more acceptable to play with. For instance, if she fiddles with TV knobs, remove her from the vicinity and try offering her a torch to switch off and on. If she is fascinated with photos in frames – give her some photos of special people or pets in empty cassette cases. If she jumps on the sofa, provide an acceptable jumping place, such as an old mattress.
Toddler Discipline Tip #6: Limit Choices
Offering choices helps your child to become a decision maker and enlists co-operation, but don’t offer open-ended choices or your child will be confused, and make sure the options you offer suit YOU! Instead of asking, “what do you want to wear?” (unless you have made a badge that says, “I dressed myself!”), say, “would you like to wear your red shirt or your blue one?”
Toddler Discipline Tip #7: Think Ahead
It is better to prevent trouble than react angrily later. For instance, if you ban ball throwing inside (and keep the balls outside) you don’t have to yell when something precious gets broken.
Toddler Discipline Tip #8: Be Flexible
Try and see things from your child’s perspective. If your little one is engrossed in an activity, perhaps give him a bit longer to complete his game (or at least give him a few minutes advance notice) before you zip him off to go shopping, call him inside for dinner, or scoop him up for a bath, for instance.
Toddler Discipline Tip #9: Practise What You Preach
If you expect good manners, use them yourself. If you expect children to pick up their toys, put your own things away. Children learn best by imitation – the good and the bad!
What About Smacking / Spanking?
Check out BellyBelly’s articles:
Books well worth reading:
A great troubleshooting guide for frustrations from Andrea Nair is below (yes I realise that there is a typo!) which is more for older toddlers but its never too young to help talk about and process feelings and frustrations.