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Discipline with Babies and Toddlers

Young children who misbehave, cry and too often get mad can feel taxing.

This post is in response to
Three Ways to Use Play to Get Kids to Behave

Babies and toddlers may be lovable in most ways, but they still can do things that are provocative. Even the youngest of princes and princesses have potential to trigger the worst sides of the royalty they call Mom and Dad. It's best though to refrain from threats, punishments or even getting mad. Punishment can breed negative reactions like resentment and fear. Positive parent techniques by contrast breed self-confidence and empathy for others. Effective upbeat ways of handling young children also keep the tone of a household positive, decreasing the likelihood of marriage problems.

Even when they dump their food on the floor, write with colored markers on white walls, or whine till you are ready to scream, punishment generally is unnecessary and often proves counter-productive, both for baby and for parents. Excessive punishment teaches your child to be scared of you, and that the world is a scarey place. Getting mad easily raises your stress levels and lowers your young child's self-confidence. Harsh speaking or raising your voice volume to get your point across trains your child to ignore you when you talk at normal volumes.

So what's left?

Let's start by redefining the word discipline. Discipline need not equate with punishment. A better discipline definition is the art of getting kids to do what they need to do and not to do what they shouldn't be doing. That's not my original formulation, but it sure is a useful one.

Another discipline definition is clarification of what behaviors are in bounds and what are out of bounds. Clarification comes mostly by reiterating simple rules such as "No hitting," and, like the umpire in sports, stopping the action when there's any violation.

Next time your baby or toddler does something wrong, that is, something that you don't like or that's unsafe, here's two far better options than threats, punishment or anger. I learned the duo from Durrani Sahib, a wise Sufi mystic whom my husband and I visited many years ago in the mountains of the NW Provinces in Pakistan. While the principles come from afar, they apply to parenting around the globe. I would welcome your comments about how they work for you....


Here's an example.. Your toddler and you have gone to visit your friend's new home. Toddler picks up a fragile glass vase on your friend's coffee table. What do you do?

PREVENTION "I'd better take that vase from him before he drops it."

DISTRACTION "I don't want him crying, so I'll distract him as I take it away."

Take the vase with one hand and put your other in Toddler's hand saying, "Look here...what's this I found under the sofa?" Together you sit down on the floor to peer under the sofa. "It went away. I can't find anything under here. Can you?" ... Mission accomplished!

One key is to implementing the new discipline definition is to remember that the word discipline comes from the same root as the word disciple. Your baby is your cherished disciple. Would you yell at a disciple? Or would you gently take care of the problem, gradually teaching better ways.

A second key, that includes elements of both prevention and distraction, is to remove a child from a situation he can't handle. Or, remove the situation from the child. If siblings are fighting, for instance, call them into the kitchen for snacks. Or take the toy over which they've been arguing (prevention) and bring them an alternative (distraction).

The third key to utilizing prevention and distraction is to monitor hunger and fatigue. Kids mostly get into trouble when they're tired or hungry. Prevention, with frequent small meals or nutritious snacks, makes a huge difference.

Fourth, set up a quiet chair. As soon as your baby is old enough to crawl and certainly by the time s/he can walk, whenever you hear the sound of irritibility or upset, implement prevention of bigger trouble by announcing "Quiet chair time."

Make sure that your tone indicates that the chair is for the child to separate himself from a situation he can't handle and self-calm, not a punishment. The ideal placement is usually close to wear you will be, and at the same time enough to the sidelines that the space is soothing.

Distraction comes into play here too. Next to the quiet chair be sure you have a shelf or table with books and quiet-play toys. Children who are playing distract themselves from their prior upset. Learning to self-soothe like this is important preparation for becoming increasingly emotionally stable, i.e., "mature."

Most important with regard to discipline of babies and toddlers is to be sure that you and your spouse are both on the same page with regard to refraining from punishing. Talk together about how to use prevention and distraction instead of anger and punishment to keep your little one on track. Sharpen your skills together at prevention and distraction and your team will be a winning one.

The prize? Your kindly prevention and distraction responses are likely to result in raising a happy baby with a foundation for becoming an adult who is high in self-confidence and high in ability to respond to others with empathy.

The last thing you want to do is to injure the confidence of a child.

For an indexed listing of Dr. H's Blogposts see Dr. H's Blogposts on her clinical website.


Denver clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, Ph.D, a graduate of Harvard and NYU, has authored From Conflict to Resolution for therapists, plus the Power of Two book, workbook, and website that teach the couple communication skills for successful relationships.

Click here for a free Power of Two relationship quiz.

Click here to learn the skills for strong and loving relationships.