How to discipline a toddler

Here’s how to start setting gentle limits on your toddler’s very normal, if exasperating, antics.

discipline a toddler

Sophia just wanted to climb. Shortly after her first birthday, she was so excited with her new mobility that she didn’t care if it was stairs or a bookcase—if it was scalable, she wanted to try. She needed to try. And that’s the rub. Sophia was truly not able to resist her obsession, much to the dismay of her mom, Amanda Cremasco of Guelph, Ont. Sophia was just doing what toddlers do: exploring the world and her own abilities, without the experience, understanding or self-discipline to distinguish good ideas from bad.

Read more: Is my toddler’s bad behaviour normal?>

Gillian Bateman, head teacher at the University of New Brunswick Early Childhood Centre, says that toddlers can’t help many of their misbehaviours. “It’s how they develop. You can say no and give simple explanations so they begin to learn the rules, but at this stage, it’s up to adults to limit and contain the behaviour. For example, many toddlers go through a stage of wanting to dump things out. You just have to remove or secure things you don’t want dumped and provide things that they can dump so they can explore and learn.”

Read more: Toddler discipline> 

She also explains that even very verbal toddlers don’t yet understand the context of rules. A toddler may be able to say “don’t touch—hot” when she sees the fireplace, but it doesn’t mean she understands what a burn is or that the same applies to candles. And their capacity for self-control really varies: “One day they might be able to wait patiently in a store line, and another day they fall apart.”

While Cremasco couldn’t allow Sophia to climb most things because it was dangerous, she employed some strategies that can be applied to many similar situations:

Babyproof Protect toddlers from themselves. The Cremascos secured bookshelves and dressers to the wall so Sophia couldn’t pull them over on herself.

Gently limit Rules are trickier than we realize. A toddler can’t comprehend why it’s OK to climb some things but not others, but Cremasco still explained each time, knowing that understanding would come eventually. “No, we don’t climb that,” she would say while steering Sophia away from her goal. Be firm but loving, says Bateman.

Redirect Just saying “no” won’t deter a passionate toddler. Instead, Cremasco tried to engage Sophia in other activities.

Find safe outlets Toddler obsessions are often driven by developmental needs. Cremasco set up safe climbing areas at home and found a play centre with mats and equipment kids can climb and jump off.

Barely past babyhood, Sophia was too young to understand “consequences.” But as kids approach three, says Bateman, simple, immediate consequences make more sense to them, such as, “We didn’t get the toys picked up, so now we don’t have time to go to the park.”

Kat Armstrong, Toronto mom to three-year-old Henry and 19-month-old Lachlan, now knows that some behaviours will pass as toddlers mature. So she doesn’t stress about Lachlan’s habit of tossing food off his high-chair tray because she’s seen his brother outgrow these antics. “Parents tend to think that everything has to be corrected right away or it won’t ever be corrected, but that’s not true,” says Armstrong. Still, she doesn’t let Lachlan dump spaghetti everywhere, either. “We give him small amounts on his tray at a time. If he starts sweeping things overboard, we say, ‘Are you done eating?’ and let him out.”

Kids change dramatically between their first and third birthdays. Child development guru Penelope Leach notes in her book Your Baby and Child that a two-and-a-half-year-old is more like a preschooler, with better understanding and ability. In the meantime, Bateman suggests these sanity-saving tips: “Give simple instructions. Have tiny expectations. Take it one step at a time.”

Read more: The terrible two’s vs. the terrible three’s>

Expert Tip

Toddlers are driven to be independent. Giving them small, safe choices can win co-operation, says early childhood educator Gillian Bateman. Telling her to clean up may go nowhere, but if you say in an enthusiastic voice, “Cleanup time! Shall we start with the blocks or the cars?” she may be an eager helper. Just don’t bombard her with choices all day long—that’s exhausting for both of you.

A version of this article appeared in the January 2015 issue with the headline “Oh, behave!” p. 53.

Teach them these manners and encourage good habits when they’re young:

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