Question: I have a lively, energetic, sometimes strong-willled but otherwise delightful and loving toddler. I don’t want to be over-strict, but I don’t want to be permissive either. When should I start to “discipline” her and how should I go about it?
Answer: The word “discipline” is an often badly misunderstood word. Its real meaning is “to teach”. In this context you have been teaching your child about the world before she was even born. As you held, fed and nurtured her as a baby, she was learning about you, about herself as someone deserving of love, and about the world as a good and loving place to be. From this positive attachment between you and your child, she will continue to go on learning how to relate to others and how to behave well.
Children who do not feel securely attached to their parents, and whose needs were not met from birth, may enter toddler-hood feeling very insecure, and presenting with a number of behaviour problems. It is from these situations and us trying to manage them, that the bad connotations of the word “discipline” have emerged. The “D” word may then come to mean us trying to control the child’s behaviour, and punishing the child if their behaviour does not please the parent.
This can quickly escalate into scolding the child, withdrawing privileges, putting the child into a “time-out” or using “artificial consequences” (punishments) for bad behaviour. It is best not to get onto that road at all, as children become unhappy, insecure, confused and angry and if they comply with what we want, it is out of fear of the consequences, rather than having learned anything useful. That is why we prefer not to use the “D” word at all if possible.
Rather we want to provide “loving guidance”, so it is probably best to think of it as a continuation of the loving connection that has existed from before birth and through babyhood, making your toddler feel secure and eager to learn about life and how to behave from her parents. Since young children want to be like us and copy everything we do (that’s how they learn) it’s important to notice how we are treating them. They learn appropriate behaviour by experiencing how we treat them, and watching how we treat other people.
Most parents want respectful, well behaved children, and the best way to achieve that is to be respectful to them. Children who have been treated with respect, will treat the world around them with respect, and children who have received kindness and caring, will be kind to other people and even animals. So the general rule is, never say anything to your child that you wouldn’t say to a much-loved friend, listen to them when they try to tell you something, and never talk about them to others in their presence, as if they weren’t there.
At the same time, toddlers are often a bundle of curiosity, impulses and energy, who can be unaware of potentially dangerous situations. They want to know about and interact with everything around them, because that is how they learn. But they can be very impulsive and sometimes stubborn, and above all, hate being told “no”, though sometimes we have to set firm boundaries to ensure their safety.
How do we stop these little balls of energy in their tracks when we need to, without discouraging the very behaviours that will serve them well later in life — without breaking the loving connection between us, hurting their innate desire to please us, or using power or punishments to keep them in line? Understanding and empathy seem to work best. If we can put ourselves into our toddler’s shoes, and experience how we would feel if we were restrained or told no, we are probably on the right track.
If we have to set a limit, it’s useful to remember that they just might have a meltdown – anything from a sad and dejected little face and some tears or whining, to a full blown tantrum, broken-hearted sobbing or anger. (See article on Tantrums). If we understand that these are appropriate reactions at their age and not “bad behaviour”, then we are on the right track. On the other hand, if we try to avoid the expression of their feelings, we may find that we have a battle on our hands, where we end up losing our cool, and find ourselves on the road to punishments instead of problem-solving.
When we have set a limit and had to say no, it’s important to stick to what we said, but at the same time, we can communicate to the child that we understand how badly they wanted to do the forbidden thing, and that we really care about how they feel. As they get the message that we care about their disappointments and are on their side, the connection between us stays strong, and most disappointments and upsets are over quite quickly. Often all the child needs is to know that we understand how they feel.
Learning should also be fun, so being playful with children is a great way to teach them any new skills we want them to learn. Laughter makes us all feel good (children are no exception). Filling their lives with fun and laughter is an excellent tool for teaching them how to relate in a positive way with other people. Children raised in this way are usually cooperative, well behaved and a pleasure to be around. If upsets are handled as soon as they happen, the issues get resolved quickly and the child can get back to doing the things they enjoy and mastering the skills they’re working on.
Parenting questions answered by Pat Törngren © 2012