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Disciplinary Techniques That Work for Toddlers and Preschoolers

Set Clear Verbal Limits

Obviously, it's not okay for Helen to push Mira off the swing. You set limits with your voice, “Helen, you may not push Mira. We are gentle with our friends. I'd like you to come down now.” Even when kids are very verbal and understand what you are saying (and why), they may not have self-control, and they may not be capable of stopping themselves or obeying your requests. It's important to set the limits verbally, even when your child is too young to fully understand you. You're teaching your child that your family uses words to settle problems.

Set Physical Limits

Because it is rare with little kids that words are enough, follow up verbal limits with physical limits (and do it before you get angry, so there's no punitive quality to it). A physical limit is imposed when you stop a child from drawing on the wall with both your words—“No Padma, we don't draw on walls. I'm going to take you into the bathroom, now, and then we'll both clean it up”—and your actions.

Hitting them, beating them, and chaining them to the wall—we've already established that these are not options with your kids. (Actually, I shouldn't joke about this. For some people, it's not so self-evident.) Kids don't always listen, and their bodies sometimes need help stopping dangerous activity. If your two-year-old is running into traffic, saying, “Pookie, that's not such a great idea,” is not such a great idea. Pick up your child!

Physical limits—like removing the pen from Padma's hand-are different from physical disciplinary techniques (like slapping the pen from her hand). Physical disciplinary techniques are not okay with one exception: Sometimes little kids need to be physically restrained. Physical restraint is like a very strong hug, and, without hurting a child, simply restrains her until she can calm down.

Behave Yourself!

Allowing natural consequences to teach your child is only appropriate when it is safe, and the consequences aren't too severe or long lasting. Letting kids walk on cliffs to learn what happens when they fall (yes, it's a natural consequence) is absurd. But so is letting a two-year-old play with a champagne glass. Yes, she'll learn that glass breaks, but oh, the possible ramifications.

Provide Choices

Choices are a part of daily life with toddlers (“Do you want to wear the red sweater or the blue one?“) and they are an essential part of teaching them discipline. Giving a kid choices (“Will you stop throwing sand or should I help you stop?”) teaches her that she's entitled to opinions, and that she has some say in her own life. It shows her respect, and it demonstrates your trust. Remember that kids may not always be able to choose from the choices you've given them. Here's the thing: No matter whether or not they can, you need to give them options. The more experience they have with making choices at a young age (especially when under stress), the better they'll do when they're teenagers faced with larger, more life-threatening choices (like, “He's really cute, and so are his friends. If I have a few drinks with him, he's really gonna like me even more.”).

Natural Consequences

Little kids are rarely logical enough to understand logical consequences, so the best approach is to allow, and point out, natural consequences. “You hit Davey, now Davey is sad and crying, and he doesn't want to play with you anymore today.” “You threw your cereal on the floor, now it is all gone.”


Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to a Well-Behaved Child © 1999 by Ericka Lutz. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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