I got this funny but heartfelt message from a reader who felt some frustration after reading my post on the negative effects of yelling at kids.
Dr. Popcak, you’re destroying all my parenting tactics one by one. I kind of hate you right now. (But really, can you write this post but apply it to toddlers? Because they don’t really listen that well. And also, I have no clue what to do with these small little savages. It’s like Lord of the Flies up in here.)
Challenge accepted. Let’s start with a little bit of understanding about toddler development.
Toddlers brains have not developed to the point where they can connect actions with consequences. They are learning to do this, but a child can’t consistently imagine that “committing X action leads to Y result every single time” until about age 7–what the Church calls (based on the work of developmental psychologists like Jean Piaget) the “age of reason.”
Inside the Toddler’s Brain.
Toddlers are moving from the sensorimotor stage of cognitive development (where they are learning to control their body and master intentional movement) into the pre-operational stage (where they are developing memory and their imagination). Later–around age 7–the child’s imagination develops to the point that they can see, in their minds eye, that “When I do X action, Y consequence happens every time.” Until then (i.e., from about 20mos -7yrs) the child easily confuses imagination with reality. They know that consequence Y could follow action X, but it is, to the pre-operational mind, just as likely that flowers will burst out of your left nostril. At this age, if I can imagine it, it actually could happen. (which, incidentally, is why some parents become frustrated with their young child’s “lies.” The child will stare at the parent and say something that is obviously not true to the adult, but for the young child, if he can imagine it happening, that’s as good as it actually happening.)
So, what does all this mean for toddler discipline? It means that you can’t use any strategies that presume the child knows and remembers anything from one time to the next. Strategies like time-outs work great with kids 5 and up, but don’t do much for littler children–especially toddlers– who get lost in their imaginations and forget why they are in the time-out chair the second you walk away. Punishments (spanking, yelling, taking things away) are basically useless too, because the toddler doesn’t really understand why he’s being punished (he knows you’re mad, and it has something to do with what just happened, but he’s not sure what) and won’t remember that he will probably receive the same punishment next time.
Because toddlers are in the learning phase of rules, expectations, and consequences (as opposed to the compliance phase)–and will be for several years yet–parents need to break toddler discipline into three emphases.
1. Prevention, Supervision, Structure
Because toddlers struggle to connect actions with consistent consequences, the best focus of toddler discipline is removing as many temptations as possible (so the child can learn behavioral lessons with as few distractions as possible), and providing near constant supervision so that the child can get immediate, consistent, feedback about what he can and can’t do. Repetition yields results.
Regarding supervision, keep your toddler with you as you move about the house. Have him “help” in his toddler way with the chores you’re doing. In other words, he can’t fold socks, but he could put all the unfolded socks in a neat pile next to you, or find all the blue socks, etc. Supervising a toddler doesn’t mean having to just sit on the floor and play all day. You can get things done too. You just need to be a little creative about how you have your toddler “share” in your work or keep him busy while you do your work.
Structure refers to the rhythm of your day. The more consistently things happen in the same order and more-or-less at the same time the more your toddler will learn, via muscle memory, what is expected and when. Structure also refers to the fact that toddlers really don’t do well when they are left on their own for even short periods. Never underestimate the toddler’s ability to get into everything the second you turn around. The more you can creatively engage them, the happy you and your toddler will be.
It is fine to say, “no” to a toddler of course, but it is much more effective to say, “do THIS instead.” Disciplining a toddler effectively really engages your creativity. That said, don’t make it more difficult than it needs to be. The ways you redirect a toddler don’t have to be involved and complicated. It’s all in how you sell it. If your toddler is fascinated with the electrical outlet, he will learn to be infinitely more fascinated with….well, just about anything you’d rather direct his attention to if you call out in your most excited voice, “O. MY. GOODNESS! LOOK at THIS! Do you SEE this, honey? WOOOOOOW!” The sillier you can be, the more over the top, the more fascinating the object will be, even if it is the socks referred to above.
3. Lots of Praise
Toddlers LOVE praise and affection. They eat it up. The more you praise them for doing things you want them to do or that are appropriate to do, the more quickly they will learn to do those things instead of other, less appropriate things. Catch your child begin good as often as possible and your life will get a lot easier as the parent of a toddler.
In short, toddler discipline isn’t about punishing the child for having “forgotten” rules or even indicating displeasure with the poor choices they make. It is about teaching them what the rules are–over and over and over–praising them when they get it right, and providing the structure and supervision that seeks to guarantee success.
And for those parents who feel a little overwhelmed at how much work parenting is, be of good cheer. God is working in your heart through your efforts. He is cracking our hearts open to receive all the love he wants to give us. Hold on to that and remember, when you’re tired of reminding your toddler for the 30,000th time to keep his fork in his hand and not on the floor, how often God has to remind you to do what he’s asked. Draw from his patience and compassion when yours is running dry.
For more ideas on effective discipline with toddlers, check out Parenting with Grace: The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids (2nd ed. revised and expanded).