Hardly anything is of more concern to parents than the challenges of
disciplining a small child. We all want our children to be well
behaved, but making this happen without squelching a child's
creativity or diminishing his sense of himself is difficult. I've
found that discipline is one area of parenting where lots of "ghosts
from the nursery" show up and cause trouble. This phrase, coined by
well-known child development
expert Selma Fraiberg, refers to the childhood memories, past
experiences, and established patterns of thinking and behaving we all
bring to the job of parenting. These ghosts can make
parenting even more complicated, because sometimes we say one thing but are
really feeling and thinking something else underneath.
Teaching and Learning
"Discipline" comes from a root word that means "to teach," not to
punish. Teaching children the proper way to behave, how to stay in
control of themselves, and how to show respect for others should be
our goal. I've found that if parents clearly plan what they want to
teach and keep in mind what their child can learn based on his stage
of development, then the specific strategies are easier to work out.
From the kids' point of view, the simpler the message being taught
and the closer the link between the action and the consequence, the
easier it is to learn what's expected.
In contrast to popular opinion, children actually like to be
disciplined, but only if it is done with consistency and love.
Knowing clearly what the rules are and what will happen if they're
broken provides security to a child. He can relax into play and
exploration because he knows where the boundaries are. The most
anxious young children I have seen in my office are those who are
rarely or inconsistently disciplined. These children will run around,
tease, sass, hit, use bad words, or otherwise test everyone in sight
as they search for the limits and look for someone other than
themselves to be in charge. Having too much power is scary for a
little kid. After love, discipline is the most precious gift you can
give a child.
Most children want to do what their parents want them to do. A
parent's love and attention are the strongest motivators in the
world, and children will work very hard to get them. Problems arise
when parents pay too little attention to their kids, or when they
dwell on undesirable behaviors and don't notice the good things their
kids do to please them. Often a discipline issue just melts away when
the parent refocuses attention on the positive and strategically
ignores some of the mischievous stuff. Rewards such as treats,
stickers on a chart, or a special activity can help shape behavior,
but nothing is as powerful as parental approval and a child's feeling
that he can do what people want of him. These internal rewards are
the big ones: They prompt a child to feel proud of himself and to
respond to the next challenge that life presents.
Sometimes parents ask too much of a child given his
developmental level and / or the circumstances. Here are some
examples I hear about regularly, along with some strategies for
getting better results.
- The parent's instructions are too
general. Requests like "Behave" or "Be nice" don't have much
meaning for a child under about 10. Be specific about what you
want your child to do. Tell him to "Stop yelling" or "Give Logan's
truck back to him."
- The task is too big for the child. Very
few young children can handle "Clean your room." Children respond
better to "Pick up the blocks" or "Put your clothes in the
hamper." Many smaller jobs completed successfully fuel the child
- The child misses the connection between
his behavior and a reward or consequence. If the consequence
comes long after the "crime," a child doesn't really learn
anything. For example, rewarding a 3-year-old at the end of the
week for accumulated good behavior makes no sense because his
memory and sense of time aren't mature enough to know what it
means. The younger the child, the closer the link needs to be.
- Too much is expected of the child. Very
young children know that "no" means to stop doing whatever they
are doing, but they can't think of a substitute if the original
temptation remains at hand. For example, the VCR buttons will
remain too tempting for your child unless you give him another
activity away from the machine.
- Too many "no's." If a child's world is
just a sea of prohibitions, then he'll quit paying attention to
any of them. Parents should prioritize the issues and work on one
or a few at a time. I suggest starting with behaviors that
endanger life and those that cause serious bodily harm or major
property destruction. Battles about food are never won and those
about clothes are not worth the effort most of the time.
- The kid is out of gas. Don't attempt
discipline when your child is tired, hungry, very upset, or
stressed. You'll be more successful if you remove the child from
the situation, refuel with whatever is needed (a nap, a snack, a
hug), and try again.
- The parent is out of gas. When you are
more upset than your child is, you are unlikely to teach him
anything of worth. Give yourself a timeout. Although children will
and should learn that parents have emotional responses to behavior
your facial expression, voice, and behavior are all ways he
judges the world's response to his actions be careful when you
feel out of control. Both you and he will be frightened by your
overreaction, and you will probably regret what you say or do.
Asked Questions, Answered by Our Parenting Experts
Q: We have 18-month-old twin boys. Neither one of
them allows us to brush his teeth. The older one's teeth are already
starting to decay. We are giving them fluoride every day. What should
A: Struggles about control
are common and normal in the second year, and this sounds like a
control struggle. It's important to support the boys' growing sense
of independence, but I'd be firm about issues that touch on health.
If you're both firm and consistent about brushing and don't get into
any discussion or negotiation about it, the boys will settle into
this important routine. Let them have a part of it, such as squeezing
a little bit of toothpaste or choosing the color brush they use, but
don't ever imply that they have a choice about brushing. The less
discussion the better. Be firm on this one: Bigger struggles are yet
to come. Children feel more secure if they know that there are set
limits that they can count on. Conversely, they feel anxious if the
rules change or seem to be negotiable or if they have too much power
in the situation. Suzanne Dixon, M.D.
My 3-year-old won't stay in his car seat. He always manages to get
out. Every morning we have a big fight when it's time to go to day
care and I have to get to work. This is making me crazy. Help!
A: Car safety is one area where there should
be no compromise and as little discussion as possible. He has to stay
in the seat, so adjust it to as tight as you can make it without it
being really uncomfortable. Some children who are sensitive to touch
do better if you line the straps with felt or velour. Be sure that
the seat is in an upright position so that your child can see out.
Check to be sure that the sun isn't in his eyes; get a sun shield for
the window if that is a problem. Provide an incentive for him, such
as a toy that is only for the car, or maybe a tape recorder or a
hand-held electronic game. Keep it in the glove compartment and get
it out only when he is in his seat and quiet. Stop the car whenever
he gets out of the seat, even if it is a hundred times at first.
There should be a minimum of talking and a prompt readjustment of him
in the car seat. He will learn if you are firm and completely
consistent in this. Plan for extra time in the morning, and be sure
you are rested when you initiate this new, firmer approach. Announce
it the day before with minimal discussion. The other part of this may
be the trouble that you both have with saying good bye in the
morning. This regular struggle may come out in part because of the
sadness you both feel at separating for the day. He may know that he
can prolong the leaving and get intense attention, although negative,
from you with this car seat hassle. Give yourselves a little more
time each day and develop a brief ritual that you both can count on,
one that's safer than fights in the car. Make your reunion at the end
of the day special. Leave dinner and the housework until you've had
time to reconnect. Suzanne Dixon, M.D.
Q: How can I keep my 19-month-old from throwing food?
When he does it repeatedly and in defiance, I usually take away his
dinner and tell him he will not get anything to eat while he throws
A: It sounds like you're both
misinterpreting his behavior and unintentionally reinforcing it. All
children this age play with their food; it's one of the ways they
discover how the world works. It's not an act of defiance. It sounds
like you're paying extra attention to your son when he throws food.
Remember that even yelling at him can reinforce his behavior because
it's a way he can predictably get your attention. This leads to the
two-step answer to your problem: First, pay lots of attention to your
son when he's eating his food without throwing it. Tell him what a
good boy he is and how big he's getting. If he throws food, make a
simple statement: "We don't throw food." Then ignore him for 15
seconds. He'll quickly learn that he gets more attention by eating
without throwing. Lawrence Kutner, Ph.D., clinical
Q: My daughter is
almost 10 months old. What is the correct way to discipline small
children? How do I get her to not touch our things? I'm afraid that if
we don't teach her now, it will be too late when she gets to the age
of 2. Is this the case?
A: It's very
important that your daughter touch all sorts of things. That's how she
learns. You just don't want her to hurt herself or to break anything
valuable. That's why the best approach to discipline at this age is
environmental control. No amount of talking to a child this age will
work. If you don't want her to touch your expensive crystal vase, just
put it on a high shelf out of her reach. If you don't want her to fall
down a flight of stairs, put up a gate. Your approach to discipline
will change as your daughter matures and can understand the
consequences of her actions. Just keep in mind that discipline has to
do with teaching, not punishment. Rewarding your daughter for good
behavior is a form of discipline. Lawrence Kutner, Ph.D.,
19-month-old daughter has started smacking me in the face and telling
me "no" when I won't give her what she wants. Is this a normal thing
for a toddler her age?
A: Although many toddlers lash out when they're feeling
frustrated, that doesn't mean you should ignore her behavior. Tell her
"No hitting!" Do not hit her back. That will only make matters worse.
Remember that she's hitting not because she's angry or you've done
something wrong as a parent, but because she's feeling overwhelmed.
Stay calm. That will allow your daughter to regain control of herself.
With some children this age who have "lost it," it helps if you wrap
your arms around them for a few seconds so that they can't hit anyone.
It may also help sometimes to distract her when you see her getting
worked up. As your daughter grows older, she'll feel more in control
when she's struggling with strong emotions. Lawrence
Kutner, Ph.D., clinical psychologist
Q: I have an 18-month-old boy who has started hitting
other kids quite a bit. He doesn't do it hard enough to really hurt.
It is really his way of getting negative attention from me. I have no
idea how to handle this. How do I react when we are in public and he
walks up to a stranger and hits him / her? I have an older child, so
it just doesn't work out that we can leave the situation because it
isn't fair to my 2-year-old. Please help! I'm really stuck.
A: Your situation sounds very frustrating, though not
at all uncommon, since many children around 18 months old communicate
their feelings physically. As you rightly suggest, he is also probably
asking you for your attention to be directed to him (though he doesn't
think of it as "negative attention"). Children his age think in a very
egocentric way everything happens because of them, and they can only
think about anyone or anything from their own point of view. This is
not selfishness, it's just the limit of how they view the world. Try
making a show of noticing when he communicates without hitting.
Positive reward for acceptable behavior teaches better than negative
consequences for bad behavior. Don't put him into social situations
when you know he's about ready for a nap or is too hungry to hold
himself calmly. And try to spend some time each day alone with him
when you can give him your full attention as you play together. Model
for him how to touch gently when you or he wants to express positive
feelings toward someone. Hang in there. Soon he'll develop language
that he'll find helps him communicate much more effectively.
Peter A. Gorski, M.D.
Q: My son is
14 months old and if he doesn't get what he wants, he throws a
terrible tantrum, throwing himself on the ground or swatting at
whoever happens to be close. Help! What can I do to break him of this
A: Those tantrums
that you describe sure can test the patience of any caregiver. For the
14-month-old child, however, they are about the best way he has to let
you know that he's determined to enjoy something, eager to stop what
he's doing, or feeling hot or cold or hungry or full, bored, tired, or
rarin' to go. As language develops over the next six months or so,
your child will be able to express his needs and interests more
diplomatically. For now, first satisfy yourself that he is not in
danger, then scoop him up and playfully distract him with a sing-song
style of reassuring words and alternative activity. Know your own
limits, too! If you're out of gas (and wishing you could throw a
tantrum yourself), find someone you trust to lend a hand with your
child. I wonder, by the way, if your boy might be an excitable,
dramatic personality by nature. If so, he's probably just as
boisterous when he's laughing with joy. He's the type who, in time,
can funnel his intensity into great leadership skills and great
efforts to be successful. Peter A. Gorski, M.D.
Q: My 23-month-old son just spent two months with his
grandparents, who spoiled him with attention. Now he wants attention
all the time and has to have his way. When we take a stand, he throws
himself on the floor and ends up hitting the back of his head. We
can't let him ride it out because his tantrums seem never-ending.
Should we get him evaluated by a child expert, or is it just part of
the terrible twos?
A: Your son is
going through a normal phase of growing up. It's quite common for
children his age and even older to throw temper tantrums because they
are frustrated. Once he develops better verbal skills, the tantrums
will naturally decrease. When your son does throw a tantrum, it's
important that you prevent him from hurting himself. Try picking him
up, taking him to a safe place, and then talking to him calmly.
Whatever you do, don't give in to his demands, or he'll quickly learn
that he can get what he wants through tantrums. It sounds like your
child is testing his and your limits, and you're caught in a vicious
circle. He demands your attention. Because you fear that you're
spoiling him, you hold back. He gets frustrated and begs for more. You
both end up upset. Instead, try giving him lots of attention cuddle,
play, and talk so that he feels safe and secure. If you hold back,
he'll just want more. Once he has that extra safety, he'll become less
demanding. You may even find that you spend less time paying attention
to him this way than when you were battling each other. Hopefully, you
will all feel better and the number of temper tantrums will diminish.
Lawrence Kutner, Ph.D., clinical psychologist
Q: My daughter is 22 months old and still nursing.
She nurses only two to three times a day when we're at home, usually
before bed and naptime. The problem is she asks (sometimes quite
loudly) to nurse when we're out in public. Do you have any
suggestions? Is she too old to continue nursing?
I'm sure you could get many different replies to your question. In
some cultures, children nurse much longer than they typically do in
this country. I sense, since you asked the question, that you are
uncomfortable with your daughter's requests, especially in public. At
her age, it would be reasonable to tell her you nurse only at home
now. If she needs a drink, get her something in a cup or carry one
with you. Toddlers often make many demands that's one of their ways of
showing their independence. But parents need to constantly set limits,
often for safety's sake. It's okay to say no and try to redirect their
attention to get their mind off what it was they were demanding; if
you're consistent, they usually come around. If you still enjoy
nursing her at home before sleep times, continue to do so. If you are
ready to wean her, offer her a drink from a cup, read a story, have a
hug or two, and put her down. If she asks to nurse, tell her she's
drinking out of a cup now. If it's possible, have her dad put her down
at bedtime to change the pattern. It may take some time since she's
been used to this for almost two years, but she'll adapt to a new
routine before long. Good luck! Linda Jonides, P.N.P.