Setting limits, reinforcing good behavior, and discouraging less-desirable behavior can start when your child is a young baby, according to experts. "There are things that even young babies have to learn not to do, such as pulling your hair," says Judith Myers-Walls, PhD, associate professor of child development and family studies at Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana.
Because little babies have limited language comprehension, memory, and attention spans, the best strategies to employ early on are more about damage control than about teaching an actual lesson. Distracting (helping him move from a not-so-good activity to something better) and ignoring (just what the name implies) are two very effective strategies. If, for example, your 4-month-old discovers how much fun it is to yank your hair, you might gently remove her hand, give it a kiss, and redirect it toward something fun and appropriate, such as a rattle or other toy.
Of course, you never want to ignore a behavior that's potentially dangerous, but looking the other way when your 7-month-old cheerfully pelts his 59th Cheerio from his high chair is a smart move. It's essential to remember that very young children are utterly guileless; your Cheerio pitcher isn't trying to annoy you. He's learning how to control his hands and beginning to understand the concept of cause and effect. As annoying as this behavior is, it's important not to get upset or overreact.
In fact, a recent study found that 39 percent of parents think that their baby is taunting them when he continually changes channels on the remote. Many parents become frustrated when a child engages in such behaviors, says Nancy Samalin, author of Loving Without Spoiling (McGraw-Hill/Contemporary Books). Your best bet is to maintain a calm demeanor and carry on with what you were doing.