While there’s no one right way to discipline a toddler, there are several ways that work well, including the following. Which you choose, and when you choose them will depend on your toddler’s personality, your personality and the specific set of circumstances.
Catch your child being good. Most children learn early on that being good garners them much less parental attention than being naughty. Mummy’s not looked up from the chequebook she’s been trying to balance for half an hour? It’s time to start ripping up her mail. Daddy settles down with the news when he gets home after work and barely says hello? He’ll notice me if I dump the dog food bowl over on the carpet. While your toddler’s thinking process may not be as clear as all that, the results are.
And be sure to give your toddler enough attention (even if you’re busy, take a moment to reach over for a hug or to comment on the progress of a brick tower) so that there will be little need to try to attract it through intentional behaviour.
- Make the punishment fit the crime. It’s virtually impossible for a young toddler to understand that television privileges are being revoked because of a crayon master-piece drawn on the living room wall. Your child is much more likely to get your point if you take the crayons away immediately and don’t return them until after lunch (and then don’t forget to include a pad of drawing paper). There is almost always a way to fit the punishment to the crime. If a cup of orange juice is turned over intentionally, the toddler can participate in the clean-up. If bricks are thrown around, they can be confiscated or the rest of the day. If a swipe is taken at another child in the sand-pit, the swipe can sit out the next round of shoveling.
- Let your child suffer the natural consequences of the crime. One of the more important lesson of life (one some adults never learn) is that all actions have consequences. Feed your biscuit to the dog, you have no more biscuits. Tear pages out of a favourite storybook. Daddy can’t read that book to you anymore. Drop your teddy in a mud puddle in the playground and you can’t play with it until it goes through the washer. Don’t always try to protect your toddler from the consequences of his or her acts and don’t consider reparations (another biscuits, a new copy of the book, an ice-cream once to stop the tears) unless the action was an accident. A toddler’s period of suffering in such situations is likely to be brief, but a lesson is nevertheless learned – eventually.
- Consider time out. Not all experts agree the ‘time-out’ is a wise disciplinary tool, but some parents swear by it. Its level of effectiveness probably depends on the commitment of the parent and the temperament of the child.
The idea behind the time-out is to allow an-out-of-control toddler to cool down and regain control; for older children a time-out can also provide a chance (hopefully) for introspection.
And be careful not to overuse time-outs or to let them become your only form of discipline. Reserve it for an infraction that truly warrants it.
- Give fair warning. When you catch your toddler in a mischievous act, or on the verge off one, it’s legitimate to warn, ‘If you don’t stop by the time I you must keep your word – or your word won’t mean a thing. In situations that involve dangerous consequences – such as, hitting, approaching a fire in the fireplace, or banging on the window – it may be necessary to forgo the warning and intervene immediately.
- Explain the sentence. Even a young toddler can understand, albeit vaguely, that you’re confiscating the toy because he threw it at his sister; or that she’s being given a time-out because she was found tearing leaves off the Ficus tree on the porch. Always offer an explanation when you discipline. Keep it smile, however, or the message will be lost.
- Carry out the sentences immediately. Toddler have short memories and even shorter attention spans. Often, by the time you’ve finished a tirade or taken away a privilege, your toddler has forgotten the reason behind it. Depriving a toddler of dessert at dinner because of an infraction that occurred in the morning pretty much assures that there will be no link whatsoever in the toddler’s mind between the misdeed and its consequences.
- Reprise the story. After a sentence has been carried out, it’s a good idea to run briefly over the events that led to it. You can ask a verbal toddler, ‘Now what did you need a time-out?’ or ‘why did I take away the ball?’ though in most cases, until your toddler is older, you’ll have to answer the question yourself.
- Forgive and forget. Once your child has paid a fair penalty, life should return to normal. There should be no lingering resentment or lengthy lectures on your part; nor should you go overboard with affection and special privileges, which could transmit the message that you regret having disciplined your toddler.