As they test their independence, setting and enforcing limits lays the groundwork for good behavior.

Rachel Ehmke

When and how should you begin to discipline toddlers?

Kids begin knowing what “no” means at around seven months on average, and, once they can speak, many go through a stage where it becomes their favorite word to use. Unfortunately, parents can also count on kids going through a stage where they gleefully ignore when mom or dad says no and other attempts and discipline. That’s because it is natural for them to start pushing boundaries — testing their independence and trying to explore the world on their own terms.

Why discipline is important

A big part of discipline in the early years is simply keeping kids safe. We don’t touch the oven. We don’t pull on the cat’s tail. We don’t run into the street. But by setting consistent limits early, parents are also laying the groundwork for good behavior in the future.

Setting limits has other benefits, too. Telling children which behaviors you do — and don’t — want to see actually makes kids feel more secure, because it reminds them that you’re in charge and guides them to the areas where they should be developing their skills and independence (such as playing with the plastic tea set and not trying to touch the real one).

Rules are also a way to help kids begin to consider the perspective of others or at least set the stage for empathy. Two-year-olds might be too egocentric to comprehend how others feel, but they can begin to learn that sharing is a nice thing to do and practice handing grandma a toy.

But how should parents share rules with children, and how can those rules be enforced — particularly when children are very young and might not understand the concept of consequences?

Setting routines 

Kristin Carothers, a clinical psychologist, says that parents are probably already setting limits without realizing it. “One of the most naturalistic ways to create boundaries is around having set routines for your kids,” says Dr. Carothers. “They might not know what time it is, but they know the bedtime routine — we have our bath, we read our book, we go sleep in our own bed.” By creating a familiar routine, parents are teaching children what to expect next, so there are no unpleasant surprises, while also establishing a clear boundary about when the bedtime begins.

Discipline toddlers in the moment

Of course, much of life isn’t planned for, so parents need strategies for how to correct behavior and reinforce boundaries in the moment. “If there’s a rule you want followed, like not hitting, then that is something you have to correct in the moment when you see it,” says Dr. Carothers. But how you correct it matters.

Parents often say, “Don’t do that” or “No,” but Dr. Carothers says that it is actually more helpful to tell children what you do want them to do, instead. “Kids know what ‘no’ means, but they don’t necessarily know what to do next after we say no, so you always want to make sure that you have an alternative for them,” she explains. Saying, “Keep your hands to yourself” or “Use gentle hands” makes that clear.

For children around three years old, parents might have the child do a time out for something like aggressive behavior. Dr. Carothers explains time out as being “time out from your positive attention.” So you might say, “We keep our hands to ourselves. You hit your brother, so now you have to sit in this chair.” For kids who are young, time out shouldn’t be longer than three minutes. Then, after the time out is finished, you can tell the child what he should do next: “You can ask your brother for the toy” or “You can touch your brother gently.”

Parents can also start setting natural consequences for a child’s misbehavior. For example, if a child jumps on the couch, a natural consequence could be having her practice sitting calmly on the couch. If she writes on the wall, then you could have her wash the wall. Of course she might not actually get the wall clean, but just the act of trying to wash the wall reinforces your rules.

 Keeping expectations realistic

For some situations, relying on your ability to respond in the moment might not be enough. For example, toddlers will run into the street if they see something interesting and not realize the potential danger. “We can’t expect a toddler to set that limit for himself,” explains Dr. Carothers, “so you as a parent need to do the intervention on the opposite side.”

For walking on the sidewalk, that means you need to hold your toddler’s hand at all times to keep him safe. Dr. Carothers also encourages parents to say something like, “Good job holding mommy’s hand! Thank you for staying close to me,” which lets your child know that these are the types of behaviors that you like to see.

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