Why is Discipline Important?
One of the main purposes of discipline is to keep children safe. Since toddlers may not be able to recognize the imminent danger of behaviors like touching a hot stove or running into the street, parents may need to take the extra step to instill appropriate behaviors in children.
Disciple also creates boundaries that help children feel more secure. Not all barriers are unfair restrictions – some are there to protect us. Discipline sets limits that lets children know there is a watchful guardian in charge. This security gives children a stable foundation for development in the right settings (for example, playing freely with a plastic tea set instead of endangering themselves by handling the real thing).
Finally, establishing rules and setting boundaries help young children recognize the importance of being considerate of others. While children may think they want to get their way all of the time, learning positive behaviors like manners can help them gain the social skills needed to successfully navigate the world in the long run.
How to Set Boundaries Prior to Incidents
One of the best ways to help toddlers naturally adapt to order and boundaries is to create a consistent routine. These routines help toddlers feel safe, secure, and stable. When children begin to know what to expect, they are more likely to remain behaved.
Since you cannot plan or micromanage every moment, the best times to create routines are during the major transitions from one part of the day to the next. Examples include a morning routine, mealtime routine, naptime routine, and bedtime routine. You might even keep a wall scheduler (no more than five times) with pictures that represent even routine. Creating a few daily routines makes it easier for children to switch gears.
Another way to help children naturally learn boundaries is to teach the concepts of choice and consequence. For example, if a child makes a fuss about getting dressed, you can give him a single choice in the process (while remaining firm in your rule that he must get dressed). You might say, “Which one do you want to put on first? Your hat or your coat?” Doing so gives the child a sense of agency or a vote while still requiring him to follow directions. Moreover, this option is better than attempting to negotiate or bribe your child (such as saying “If you get dressed, you’ll get ice cream”). Negotiating or bribing is not recommended since children can start to expect these trades every time, and they might become confused to learn that these transactions are not always possible.
Similarly, teaching consequence over time is more effective than simply scolding misbehavior. For example, if a child stands on the couch, the consequence might be to sit still on the couch for a full minute. If a child scribbles on the wall with crayons, the consequence would be to “clean” the wall. This method of teaching cause and effect lets children know that you mean business, and it also helps them understand the results of both wrong and right behaviors.
How to Discipline a Toddler During an Incident
Incidents refer to actions for which you need to discipline a toddler immediately. Examples include smacking another child on the playground or doing something that may cause harm to self or others. Calmly but firmly say “no” and remove the child from situation if required. And in addition to saying “no,” it is especially important at this age to provide the children with the alternative so that they learn the correct behavior. So in addition to saying “no hitting,” you should provide the alternative (“keep your hands to yourself” or “always use gentle hands”).
If the child continues the behavior after the firm warning, a time out is appropriate. As a general rule, the length of a time out includes one minute for each year of the child’s age. Following this rule, a two-year-old’s time out would be two minutes, a three-year-old’s time out would be three minutes, and so on. You can use a timer if available. Once children have had a moment to calm down, they can then return to the regular setting and follow the rules as directed.
How to Support Your Toddler After an Incident
No parent wants to discipline a toddler just for “discipline’s sake.” It is important to praise your child when he or she is being good. The best way to provide positive reinforcement is to be specific. For instance, “Thank you for putting your plate in the sink. That makes it much easier to tidy up after lunch.” When children realize they will get positive attention for doing well, they are less likely to use negative behaviors for this purpose (for example, throwing the plate to the floor for attention).
You might even want to “catch” your child being good. This means if you overhear your child sharing in the playroom, step in for a moment to give a high-five. Your child will feel the security of knowing you are close by, and he or she will love the feedback that comes from positive behavior.
Even if you had to discipline a child through the consequence method, you can provide positive feedback once the child completes the consequence successfully. For example, after a child sits still on the couch for a full minute (since this was the consequence for jumping on the coach), you might say, “You did a great job sitting still. Let’s go sit still at the table to color.” This lets children know you are not necessarily “punishing” them or “being mean.” Rather, you are enforcing rules because they are in the child’s best interest and are appropriate behaviors.
Finally, it is important to support your toddler by remaining realistic about expectations. For instance, you cannot expect toddlers to have the insight to know why they should not run off into the parking lot or street. However, you can establish the rule of always holding a parent’s hand. Be sure to praise during and after enforcement of the rule (“Great job holding hands and staying close to mommy!”) In this setting, some also parents help their child stay focused by quietly singing a song (such as “The Ants Go Marching”) and reinforce the benefit of holding onto a parent’s hand in other ways (such as a simple game of hopscotch). By constantly reaffirming positive behaviors, you can help your child understand expectations and respond accordingly.