One parenting question that I wish we could answer once and for all is toddler discipline. On the parenting pages that I follow, frustrated parents post daily struggles with discipline, most of them involving toddlers who don’t understand that they are driving us nuts! Toddlers. Driving their parents crazy. On purpose! How do we make them understand that their behaviour is unacceptable, dangerous or destructive?
This is a long post. You may want to get a coffee.
Before we get into the specific of early childhood discipline, we need to agree on a few ground rules of discipline for all ages. Discipline is not the same thing as punishment. In my Christian/Catholic circles, I am one of a handful of “crunchy left-wing tree-huggers” who doesn’t spank, whack, smack or make extensive use of time-outs and punishments. But in my left-wing tree-hugging circles, countless parents confuse no punishment with no discipline.
Discipline is not punishment. Whereas punishment is the imposition of a penalty in retribution for an offense, discipline is the practice of training to follow rules. In other words, punishment may be a tool in the discipline tool box but relying exclusively on punishment to impart discipline would be misguided. The goal of every parent should be to parent themselves out of a job: the following of rules, be they social, moral or simply physical should come from within. Punishment doesn’t teach self-discipline and, more importantly, doesn’t teach that self-discipline is a pathway to a long, happy and fulfilled life.
“Wait, wait, wait” you say. “Isn’t this post about toddler discipline?” you ask. “I want my toddler to grow unhindered by the shackles of rules. I want her uniqueness and creativity to shine through. I want her to dance like no one is watching and sing like no one is listening!”
Well, yes. That’s all very touching. But the other less cute things about your toddler, the hitting, the biting, the shoving, the unbridled temper tantrums, are expressions of creative problem-solving and unhindered frustration. Life in groups, whether at the family level, preschool or daycare, is rule-based. Not biting is a rule, waiting turns is a rule, peeing in appropriate places is a rule. You can’t have positive creativity without negative creativity unless the difference has been explained and internalized. So my question to you is, if not now, then when? How will you decide the appropriate time to introduce discipline? And what makes you think that your unhindered, free-spirited child will welcome it?
Discipline is more than learning to follow rules. Learning to follow rules and suppress our natural pattern reactions for the sake of others is the basis of empathy, politeness and carefulness, which — if your toddler’s behaviour wasn’t your first clue — are learned behaviours.
Discipline can be compared to the tutor helping a plant grow upward. When my husband and I planted our first garden, we planted a tight row of tomato plants. We didn’t install the tutors until the plants were collapsing on themselves, weighted down by their fruit. We tried installing tutors at that point and it was certainly better than nothing for most plants. But we also broke a few plants by trying to tie them to a tutor this late in the game. Discipline is not a cage, it’s a tutor. And while it is never too late to learn discipline, it is most efficient when it grows with the child.
Like a plant growing on a tutor, discipline is a process.
Repetition over time is the key to discipline. There are no gimmicks, no fast fix. Often, when parents ask for help with a discipline issue, they are missing one (or both) component: repetition and time. Parents have the right approach but wonder why it is not yielding results: time is missing. Parents have been trying a variety of solutions over time: repetition is missing. If you know that you are doing the right thing, keep at it. Try to avoid trying a smorgasbord of disciplinary approaches in short cycles: you will only confuse your child and delay the necessary passage of time.
While you are hitting your head against a brickwall raising your toddler, remember that it is easier to teach discipline in a positive and constructive environment than a negative limiting one. For instance, I know people (I really do) who refuse to child-proof their house. They want the child to learn not to play farm with the Swarovski. Fair enough. They are setting their child up for failure and themselves for the mad house. They will spend the best part of their days trying to keep their toddlers off the Swarovski. It will be no, no, no all the time, managing failure instead of successes. They will live in a constant state of exasperation and may harshly punish their child out of sheer frustration.
Toddlers do not have the capacity to appreciate expensive crystal , a clean cupboard or the danger in harassing a dog. While you are teaching your child to use gentle hands, keep away from the cupboard or respect animals, remember that it is always easier to manage your expectations than a child. For instance, my toddler son loves our German Shepherd. He loves to poke her, try to touch her eyes and shake his toys in her face. Every day, I spend about 15 minutes supervising his interactions with the dog, telling him to use gentle hands and to avoid the eyes. Then I put the dog in her crate until my son finds something else to play with. Like the dishwasher…. Sigh. I am still teaching him to respect the dog but I am not sacrificing my day to a game of twin whack-a-mole. If your toddler has difficulty sharing a specific toy at play group, you can leave the toy in circulation for about 15 minutes during which you will diffuse 10 temper tantrums and arbitrate 15 full body checks. Then retire the toy or leave while you are still on top. If your toddler throws food everywhere, give him less food: a hungry toddler eats food. Manage expectations, not the baby.
Repetition over time. And remember that a well-rested and well-fed toddler is so much easier to deal with.