Babyproofing was the beginning—sticking those childproof plugs into the electrical sockets, installing baby gates and putting away breakables. As your baby became a toddler, you continued making your home a place where she could play safely without getting into too much trouble. All of that is still important. But now she’s past two, and it may not be enough anymore. It’s time to start thinking about discipline.
By discipline, we don’t mean being spanked over a parent’s knee or standing in the corner. Anne Leon, the mother of six boys (ranging in age from three-year-old Dominic up to Michael, 14) has learned a lot about more positive approaches to discipline. “It’s really about teaching them or showing them the right way to behave,” she says.
The first step, she adds, is having reasonable expectations. What is fair to ask of your child? This will be different for each child, since children develop at different rates and have different temperaments.
It’s easy to assume that a toddler with a larger-than-average vocabulary and fluent language skills is more mature than others the same age, but that’s rarely the case. Your very verbal little girl probably has no more self-control, patience or social skills than any other two-year-old. Leon also points out that what’s reasonable also often changes from moment to moment: “If your child is tired or hungry, he’s going to be less able to be co-operative,” she says. If your child has been confined to a car seat for two hours, asking him to sit quietly for another hour or two when you arrive at your destination is probably not reasonable, either.
Leon has plenty of other tips:
1. Be positive
“Try not to be saying no, no, no all the time. You know they’ll just shut it out anyway. It’s always more helpful to say, ‘This is where you can jump’ or ‘You need to eat in the kitchen,’” according to Leon.
2. Teach by example
Leon recalls, “After supper one day, I said to Dominic, ‘See how Isaac is taking his dishes to the sink? I want you to take your dishes to the sink, too.’ He watched how his brother did it, and looked quite pleased with himself to be able to do the same thing.”
Even when a child has no older siblings to demonstrate, Leon notes that parents are teaching by example all the time. “When your child is fighting with a friend, and you go in and calmly separate them and help them to sort out the conflict, you are providing a great example. If you go in and start yelling and getting upset with them, that’s what they learn to do.”
3. Be hands-on
Leon finds “direct guidance” useful with toddlers. “It’s no good to stand in the doorway and yell, ‘Stop that!’ or ‘Come here!’ You have to actually guide them.” That might mean going up to the child, putting your hands on his shoulders, and propelling him (gently) in the direction you want him to go.
4. Encourage corrections
Leon also helps her children correct their mistakes. If Dominic runs through the kitchen and knocks over the cat food dish, scattering little morsels everywhere, Leon asks him to get the broom and help sweep the food up. “Sometimes he’s reluctant,” she acknowledges. “He doesn’t want to stop whatever game he was playing. But I insist.”
This works well for Leon. From her experience, it’s better to have fewer rules, but to be clear about them. She’s insistent about car seats, for example. At Dominic’s age, he’d like to be out of his seat — but Leon makes sure he’s buckled in every single time. She doesn’t punish him or even yell at him about it; she just helps him into the seat and does up the harness. If he squirms or complains, she persists. If he manages to make it impossible, she just waits. They aren’t going anywhere until Dominic’s buckled up.
“And I can outlast him,” she laughs.
6. Give a little
Leon has developed some perspective on what issues matter, and which ones aren’t worth making a fuss about. Many toddler behaviour issues will be outgrown as the child matures. Finding the right balance for your family — and for each individual child — will help you begin the teaching process that is discipline in a positive way.
This article was originally published in 2011.