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PARENTS CORNER • Last updated May 13, 2017

Getting A Handle on Discipline

By Rosemary Black

At age 1, my daughter's favorite plaything was toilet paper. She loved to unroll it, wrap herself up in it, and stuff it into the toilet. My husband and I tried everything to get her to stop: removing her from the scene of the crime, offering other toys, and saying "No!" But she was, um, on a roll. Finally she moved on to something even more entertaining: the cat's water bowl!

"Young children are programmed to explore," says Annye Rothernberg, Ph.D. "They want to check out everything because they are trying to understand their world." Toddlers are also impulsive creatures who live in the moment, says Penny Shore, author of Teaching Your Child Positive Discipline (ParentSmart Books, 2002). Those traits -- along with your little one's inconsistent memory and very limited attention span -- means that what we often perceive as misbehavior is really just a child testing limits and being, well, a toddler.

Still, that doesn't mean you should permit your tot to color on the walls or pull the cat's tail. Discipline -- which simply means setting and enforcing reasonable limits -- is crucial from the time your baby begins to crawl. Teaching appropriate behavior not only keeps your child safe (and your good china intact), but in the long run will help her make smart behavior choices later in life, Shore says.

In Miranda's case, we solved the problem by babyproofing: when our daughter grew fascinated with the cat's water bowl, we moved it onto a table out of her reach and only put it down on the floor when she was napping. (Just to be safe we also begain keeping the toilet paper on a high shelf near the towels.) Miranda wasn't tempted to dump water all over the floor, and we saved ourselves many rolls of toilet paper.

Like us, you'll learn that some discipline tactics work better than others, and you may need to go through some trial and error first. Since the effectiveness of discipline strategies often depends on your baby's age, here's a breakdown of tactics by the age you'll most likely have success with them.

8 - 12 months

At this point kids are crawling and starting to walk, which means they'll get into things. The first and most obvious strategy is to set up a child-friendly environment, as we did for Miranda. If that potted plant is out of reach, you won't have to keep reminding your child not to touch it, says Dr. Rothenberg.

Establish routines and stick to them. This isn't always possible, of course. But if your child learns that every night you cuddle together in the rocking chair before bed, she'll soon make the connection that it's sleepytime, Shore says, and bedtime will go a lot more smoothly than if there's a different schedule every night.

Set a good example. "Even at a very young age, kids imitate what they see," says Shore. If your child sees you putting away the blocks in the playroom, hanging up coats, and speaking quietly, he may well try to do the same thing. Model the behavior you would like your child to engage in, and role-play with him.

Distract him. If your child is drawn to the VCR or another off-limits object, offer a substitute toy to redirect his energy. Because of the short attention spans, this often works very effectively.

Remove him from the scene. For kids this young, if all else fails, simply scooping them up and taking them into another room or outside is often enough to get them out of trouble.

12 - 18 months

Mobile toddlers can understand a few hundred words, so now you can begin to briefly explain why your child shouldn't do something, says Shore. You might say, "Don't pull Spot's tail. It hurts him."

Consistency counts. Once you establish rules, stick to them. If you let your child have a cookie before dinner one day and the next you day you tell him he can't have one, he'll get confused. Likewise if you don't usually let him play with the CD player, but one day, when you're tired, you lie on the couch and don't say anything when he starts pressing buttons, your child gets the message that it's probably okay. "It's important to follow through and make the effort," says Shore.

Give your approval. Let your child know how much you appreciate the right behavior. "Tell her, 'Thank you for picking up that toy,'" Shore says. "Praise is very important to toddlers and reinforces good behaviors. So always let them see how happy you are when they do the right thing."

18 - 24 months

At around this age, offering a distraction or removing the object of baby's desire doesn't work as well anymore, because baby's memory has improved. But a better memory can also work in your favor, as your child will be more likely to remember the second or third time he scribbles on the wall that it's something that will bring your disapproval.

"No" starts to make sense. A child this age can say about 100 words and easily understand three times that amount. So they understand "no, don't touch" more than younger babies.

Remember to say yes as well as no. Many parents think discipline is only about saying no, but it's also about identifying positive behaviors. "Instead of saying, 'Don't hit the cat,' tell your child 'Pet the cat softly, like this,'" says Shore.

Teach empathy. When a toddler bits or hits another child, insist that he stop whatever pleasurable activity he's engaged in until the hurt child is no longer crying. This motivates the hitter not to do it again. He wants to avoid the consequence of having a pleasurable activity taken away. Although this isn't true empathy, it certainly lets the child begin to experience how another person feels.

Give choices. By age 2 you can begin to offer a child some choices ("Would you rather wear your red pants or the blue ones?") Doing so promotes a sense of independence so kids are less likely to act out.

Tell your child what's coming up. To avoid tantrums when it's time to go home from a play date or the park, tell your child in advance. If you tell them five minutes before you leave where you are going next, she can begin to prepare herself.

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Last modified: May 13, 2017