When it comes to discipline and toddlers, parents often need to re-think the definition of the term, “discipline”.
If we have a child who is in first grade and just learning to read we don’t punish that child because he can’t read and comprehend Moby Dick. We understand that he is just beginning to learn to read. When he picks up new reading skills we praise him and congratulate him. When he stumbles on a word we tell him what the word is or help him sound it out, but we don’t punish him. Still, when toddlers are just learning how to be people and what people should do and not do parents take a different approach: They often punish their child without regard for the child’s emotional maturity to be able to control himself and his simple newness at being a person. This could be the only time in a child’s life when parents are as tough on children as some parents are.
I’m not saying toddlers shouldn’t be told right from wrong. At this age, that’s what discipline is about. Putting a toddler in time-out because he got frustrated when he was playing with his four-year-old sibling and threw a toy a him isn’t necessarily effective. Neither, however, is hitting a toddler for doing the same thing when the reason he did what he did came from his inability to control his emotional response to what felt, to him, like an upsetting experience. Toddlers do need to learn not to throw toys at people, but the two-year-old who throws a toy out of frustration will not necessarily grow into the three-year-old who does the same thing. Sometimes parents need to go with the child’s developmental stage and reduce potential for a two-year-old’s becoming as upset as he almost inevitably will become if he plays with a four-year-old.
Like the child just learning to read, the toddler needs to be told what is right and what is wrong. An authoritative statement that “this isn’t what nice people do” will get through sooner than many parents think it will. Removing the toddler from the room where the event occurred makes sense, but placing him in “official” time-out doesn’t always make sense. When a child acts out of lack of self-control his motivation was not to commit “evil”. Even if a two-year-old understands that throwing toys is not a good thing, as long as he is at a stage in his development where he cannot keep up with an older sibling and cannot handle his own frustration, he is likely to throw a toy or hit again.
The toddler who pulls all the cheese slices out of the refrigerator and unwraps them was, in his own eyes, just playing. The toddler who won’t stop trying to carry the cat by its neck is too young to understand the difference between carrying a cat in an appropriate way and carrying it in a way that will hurt it. For the years between one and three parents can prevent a lot of problems by not allowing their child to be too far from their view and by intervening when they see that something is about to happen. When the child heads for the cat that’s when a parent can intervene and explain that “the kitty wants to eat her dinner”. When a parent senses the early stages of a squabble between a four-year-old and his toddler-sibling that’s when to intervene (before someone throws something).
During the time between when a child learns to walk and when that child turns three the discipline technique of “time-out” isn’t necessarily appropriate or effective. Discipline means teaching, as well as punishing, and when parents keep a toddler nearby and keep an eye on what he or she seems to be heading for they can head off the “bad deed” before it gets done. When a sibling squabble seems imminent, if parents intervene before it blossoms into a full-blown fight both the toddler and the older sibling feel protected. The toddler feels protected from the older sibling, and the older child feels protected from the toddler’s mischief-making.
When a parent gets up out of the chair and goes to the toddler to stop what he’s doing that toddler learns fairly quickly what the rules are about being a person. As any parent who has ever stopped a two-year-old from doing something he wanted to do knows, being stopped from doing whatever it was is, in itself, a punishment for the easy-to-upset two-year-old. When parents stop children from whatever it is they’re doing that is wrong toddlers learn who is in charge too.
The parents of a toddler also need to know how to “steer into a few skids”. They need to know how to turn a potentially frustrating situation for a child into a positive one. They need to know, too, how to prevent some of the situations that are most frustrating and upsetting for their toddler.
In the first year of children’s lives there aren’t many issues about what they get into or how well they play with others. It is between about one year and three years when children are most prone to the unacceptable toddler behavior. Children of about three are old enough to have “settled into” being a child a little better. They understand why some things hurt or why people don’t want belongings broken or why its nice to be a good friend to a playmate. If parents exercise a little extra vigilance, try to have a solid understanding of the difficulties of being a toddler, and don’t panic over the fact that their 18-month old child does a few unacceptable things, they will get to the day when their child turns three and is more willing and able to understand, and comply with, rules of good behavior and being a nice person.
If parents try to prevent circumstances that tend to lead to tantrums (which are one reason toddlers bite, hit, and throw things) and exercise some patience in teaching their toddler what they can and can’t do they can help their toddler get through that year and a half or so that can be so frustrating, bewildering, and upsetting to someone who can’t even really use words to express himself. When the child is three or so if he’s still doing unacceptable things then time-out may be appropriate. Time-out and any other forms of punishment just aren’t appropriate for the child who is too young to even know what he did that was so wrong or for a child who did something as a result of having trouble dealing with an overwhelming world.