Toddler behaviour

Toddler discipline methods that ACTUALLY work, according to a data-obsessed economist mom

Mom of two Emily Oster, the author of "Expecting Better" and "Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, from Birth to Preschool," takes a scientific look at which toddler discipline tactics get results.

By Emily Oster
Toddler discipline methods that ACTUALLY work, according to a data-obsessed economist mom

Photo: iStockphoto

In Emily Oster's previous book, Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom is Wrong—and What You Really Need to Know, the award-winning economist used data to disprove common pregnancy misconceptions (the dangers of consuming sushi, for example). With her latest title, excerpted here, she's graduated to the toddler and preschool years.

Nearly everyone who has parented a toddler–or who has been a toddler—has a tantrum story. When I sat down to write my new book on parenting, Cribsheet, I asked a few friends about this. My mom recounted in detail holding the bedroom door closed so my brother wouldn’t get out during a tantrum-induced time-out. My friend Jenna reported that her mom is still angry about a tantrum episode Jenna had at age four in a Kmart.

Tantrums are at the more extreme end of toddler acting out, but toddlers act out in other ways as well. They can almost seem like scientists—experimenting with what is possible.

If I throw this half-eaten cauliflower stem at Mom and say, “I don’t LIKE IT!,” what will happen? The constant experimentation can be exhausting and confusing, but the somewhat good news is that there are evidence-based approaches to dealing with discipline.

I say “somewhat good” since there is no magic bullet that will completely stop tantrums and turn your two-year-old into a seven-year-old. Instead, parenting interventions focus on how to re­spond to bad behavior when it starts and limit recurrence.

There are a few specific examples of these, including 1‑2‑3 Magic, the Incredible Years, Triple P—Positive Parenting Program, and so on. Broadly, all these emphasize a few key elements.

First, recognize that children are not adults, and you usually cannot improve their behavior with a discussion. If your four-year-old is taking their shirt off in the museum, they will not respond to a reasoned discus­sion about how you actually do need to wear a shirt in public places. The flip side of this—more important—is that you shouldn’t expect them to respond to adult reasoning. And as a result, you should not get angry the way you would if, say, your spouse was stripping in the museum and didn’t stop after you explained why they shouldn’t.

All these interventions emphasize not getting angry. Don’t yell, don’t escalate, and definitely don’t hit. Controlling parental anger is the first central part of the intervention.


This is so easy to say, but it is often so hard to do. It takes practice on your part.

Second, these approaches all emphasize setting up a clear system of rewards and punishments and following through on them every time. For example, 1‑2‑3 Magic develops a system of counting (to three, obviously) in the face of disruptive behavior, and if three is reached, there is a defined consequence (a time-out, loss of a privilege, etc.).

Finally, there is a strong emphasis on consistency. Whatever the sys­tem you use, use it every time. If the consequence of counting to three is a time-out, then there needs to be a time-out every time.

As an extension, if you say no to something, you stick to no. And simi­larly, do not make threats you cannot carry out.

The evidence that these work is based on a number of randomized con­trolled trials.


To give an example, a paper published in 2003 in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reported on an evaluation of 1‑2‑3 Magic among 222 families. All the parents involved were looking for help man­aging their children’s behaviour, although none of the children had clinical behaviour problems. That is to say, they were just engaging in the standard difficult behaviours.

The intervention was fairly light—parents attended three two-hour meetings that discussed the 1‑2‑3 Magic approach, and were shown vid­eos and given handouts about particular problem issues. There was a fourth two- our meeting a month later to reinforce.

The experimental group—the one that got the intervention—had im­provements on all the variables measured. The parents scored better on measures of parenting—i.e., “Are you hostile and angry toward your child?”—and the children scored better on a variety of measures of behav­iour. Moreover, the parents reported that their children were better behaved and more compliant, and that their own stress had gone down. The au­thors noted the effect sizes were not enormous—it would be hard to expect huge effects, given how limited the intervention was—but they were large enough for parents to notice them and affect their time with their chil­dren.

What about the more annoying things? Like, say, your kid insisting on singing the same song 50 times in a row? Just as an example.

You probably need to live with those. One of the main tenets of these parenting approaches is that discipline should be reserved for actual bad behaviour, not for things that are merely annoying.

Cribsheet book cover with author photo of Emily Oster Cover: Penguin Random House
Right: Emily Oster by Dana Smith

Excerpted from CRIBSHEET:A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, from Birth to Preschool by Emily Oster. Reprinted by arrangement of Penguin Press, part of the Penguin Random House company. Copyright (c) 2019 by Emily Oster.

This article was originally published on May 21, 2019

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