Does strict discipline build strong character? Not really. Before you demand your two-year-old drop and give you 20 for refusing to pick up his blocks, remember that rigid discipline often backfires.
Demanding compliance — rather than encouraging the development of self-control — usually turns out kids who are totally submissive to their parents but often totally out-of-control once out of reach of parental authority (and we’ve all seen those types on the playground!). Overly permissive parents aren’t doing their kids any favors either. Their offspring are often selfish, rude, and unpleasant, quick to argue, and slow to comply. Plus, kids may subconsciously perceive permissive parents as apathetic (and thus uncaring).
So what’s right? The most effective discipline is neither rigid nor permissive. It’s a more nurturing style that falls somewhere in between by setting limits that are fair and enforcing them firmly but lovingly. Here are some dos and don’ts:
- Pick your battles. If you take on your toddler every time he slams a door or wipes his nose on his sleeve, you’ll be clashing all day. Safety limits (no running into the street, no touching a hot stove, for instance) are, of course, imperative, but the rest of the rules depend on your priorities (and how much energy you’ve got). Maybe “no shouting in the house” is paramount, but you can live with allowing shoes on the sofa. And maybe being courteous and saying “Please” and “Thank you” are primary expectations. Set rules you feel strongly enough about to enforce fully, but keep them to a reasonable number’
- Be direct (and consider distraction). If your first “no” is ineffective, gently but firmly pick up your toddler and — face-to-face, with a voice and body language that says “I mean business” — repeat your instructions: “Don’t touch the electrical outlet. It’s dangerous.” Then turn to distraction: Move your child into another room (and on to another activity). Redirection works well at this age when tots have little control over their impulses and might not grasp why you’re saying “no.”
- Be consistent. If hand washing before dinner was compulsory yesterday
but overlooked today, the only lesson learned is that rules are confusing or meaningless. So make sure you stick to the rules you establish, or you’ll lose credibility. When you do make an exception, explain why (“Your cousins are visiting so — just for tonight — you can stay up an extra hour to hang out with them”).
- Be patient. Toddlers have limited memories so don’t be surprised if they repeat a misdeed over and over and over…(“I know Mommy said not to play with her cell phone…but she’s upstairs…and I love pushing all these neat buttons…”). Be prepared to repeat the same message, whether it’s “Please don’t touch the computer” or “No eating the dog food” over and over every day for weeks —even months — before it sticks. If you choose to use time-outs, you may have to use them often until your little darling finally gets the message.
- Stick to your guns. While it’s tempting to give in to an adorable tot who flashes an impish grin in response to your “no!” — don’t waiver (or giggle). Let him know that you’re serious and there will be consequences if his behavior doesn’t change. And no empty threats, Mom. If you say you’ll take away his truck if he whacks his cousin with it one more time, you’ve got to follow through so he knows you mean business next time.
- Be the family dictator. Toddlers (and everyone else) feel better when they get to call some of the shots. Give your tot a sense of control over his world by providing a few acceptable choices — a graham cracker or an apple, the swing or the slide, the T-shirt with the elephant or the one with the spaceship. Remember, giving your tot a sense of control over his world minimizes the cause of many, many meltdowns.
- Criticize your tot. Telling your little one that he is “bad” can damage his young ego (and bruise his self-confidence), so criticize the action — not the child: “Hitting is bad” not “You’re bad” or “I don’t like what you’re doing” never “I don’t like you.”
- Overuse “no.” Say the word too many times and “no” will soon lose its effectiveness. Save it for situations that threaten the well-being of your toddler, another person, or your home. And with each “no,” try to offer a “yes” (“You can’t pick the roses, but you can make a big dandelion bouquet for the kitchen table”).
- Lose your cool. Uncontrolled anger clouds your thinking, teaches poor coping skills, and can be downright frightening. Take time to calm down when your child sets you off, then explain why what he did was wrong (“You threw Mommy’s dish and broke it. Now I’m sad”). Remember, your long-term goal is to teach correct behavior — screaming or swatting does just the opposite. When you do lose your cool (hey, you’re only human), apologize and tell your tot that even mommies make mistakes.