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The 20 Commandments of Toddler Discipline

Children aren't born with social skills -- it's human nature for them to start out with a survival-of-the-fittest mentality. That's why you need to teach your toddler how to act appropriately and safely -- when you're around and when you're not. In a nutshell, your job is to implant a "good citizen" memory chip in her brain (Freud called this the superego) that will remind her how she's supposed to behave. It's a bit like breaking a wild horse, but you won't break your child's spirit if you do it correctly. The seeds of discipline that you plant now will blossom later, and you'll be very thankful for the fruits of your labor. (Just don't expect a tree to grow overnight.) Here are the commandments you should commit to memory.

  1. Expect rough spots. Certain situations and times of the day tend to trigger bad behavior. Prime suspect number 1: transitions from one activity to the next (waking up, going to bed, stopping play to eat dinner). Give your child a heads-up so he's more prepared to switch gears ("After you build one more block tower, we will be having dinner").
  2. Pick your battles. If you say no 20 times a day, it will lose its effectiveness. Prioritize behaviors into large, medium, and those too insignificant to bother with. In Starbucks terms, there are Venti, Grande, and Tall toddler screwups. If you ignore a minor infraction -- your toddler screams whenever you check your e-mail -- she'll eventually stop doing it because she'll see that it doesn't get a rise out of you.
  3. Use a prevent defense. Sorry for the football cliche, but this one is easy. Make your house kid-friendly, and have reasonable expectations. If you clear your Swarovski crystal collection off the end table, your child won't be tempted to fling it at the TV set. If you're taking your family out to dinner, go early so you won't have to wait for a table.
  4. Make your statements short and sweet. Speak in brief sentences, such as "No hitting." This is much more effective than "Chaz, you know it's not nice to hit the dog." You'll lose Chaz right after "you know."
  5. Distract and redirect. Obviously, you do this all day. But when you try to get your child interested in a different activity, she'll invariably go back to what she was doing -- just to see whether she can get away with it. Don't give up. Even if your child unrolls the entire toilet-paper roll for the 10th time today, calmly remove her from the bathroom and close the door.
  6. Introduce consequences. Your child should learn the natural outcomes of his behavior -- otherwise known as cause and effect. For example, if he loudly insists on selecting his pajamas (which takes an eternity), then he's also choosing not to read books before bed. Cause: Prolonged pj-picking = Effect: No time to read. Next time, he may choose his pj's more quickly or let you pick them out.
  7. Don't back down to avoid conflict. We all hate to be the party pooper, but you shouldn't give in just to escape a showdown at the grocery store. If you decide that your child can't have the cereal that she saw on TV, stick to your guns. Later, you'll be happy you did.
  8. Anticipate bids for attention. Yes, your little angel will act up when your attention is diverted (making dinner, talking on the phone). That's why it's essential to provide some entertainment (a favorite toy, a quick snack). True story: My son once ate dog food while I was on the phone with a patient. Take-home lesson: If you don't provide something for your toddler to do when you're busy, she'll find something -- and the results may not be pretty.
  9. Focus on the behavior, not the child. Always say that a particular behavior is bad. Never tell your child that he is bad. You want him to know that you love him, but you don't love the way he's acting right now.
  10. Give your child choices. This will make her feel as if she's got a vote. Just make sure you don't offer too many options and that they're all things that you want to accomplish, such as, "It's your choice: You can put your shoes on first, or your coat."

11. Don't yell. But change your voice. It's not the volume, but your tone that gets your point across. Remember The Godfather? Don Corleone never needed to yell.

12. Catch your child being good. If you praise your child when he behaves well, he'll do it more often -- and he'll be less likely to behave badly just to get your attention. Positive reinforcement is fertilizer for that superego.

13. Act immediately. Don't wait to discipline your toddler. She won't remember why she's in trouble more than five minutes after she did the dirty deed.

14. Be a good role model. If you're calm under pressure, your child will take the cue. And if you have a temper tantrum when you're upset, expect that he'll do the same. He's watching you, always watching.

15. Don't treat your child as if she's an adult. She really doesn't want to hear a lecture from you -- and won't be able to understand it. The next time she throws her spaghetti, don't break into the "You Can't Throw Your Food" lecture. Calmly evict her from the kitchen for the night.

16. Use time-outs -- even at this age. Call it the naughty chair or whatever you like, but take your child away from playing and don't pay attention to him for one minute for each year of age. Depriving him of your attention is the most effective way to get your message across. Realistically, kids under 2 won't sit in a corner or on a chair -- and it's fine for them to be on the floor kicking and screaming. (Just make sure the time-out location is a safe one.) Reserve time-outs for particularly inappropriate behaviors -- if your child bites his friend's arm, for example -- and use a time-out every time the offense occurs.

17. Don't negotiate with your child or make promises. This isn't Capitol Hill. Try to avoid saying anything like, "If you behave, I'll buy you that doll you want." Otherwise, you'll create a 3-year-old whose good behavior will always come with a price tag. (Think Veruca Salt from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.)

18. Shift your strategies over time. What worked beautifully when your child was 15 months probably isn't going to work when he's 2. He'll have read your playbooks and watched the films.

19. Don't spank. Although you may be tempted at times, remember that you are the grown-up. Don't resort to acting like a child. There are many more effective ways of getting your message across. Spanking your child for hitting or kicking you, for example, just shows him that it's okay to use force. Finally, if your toddler is pushing your buttons for the umpteenth time and you think you're about to lose it, try to take a step back. You'll get a better idea of which manipulative behaviors your child is using and you'll get a fresh perspective on how to change your approach.

20. Remind your child that you love her. It's always good to end a discipline discussion with a positive comment. This shows your child that you're ready to move on and not dwell on the problem. It also reinforces the reason you're setting limits -- because you love her.

From Toddler 411: Clear Answers & Smart Advice For Your Toddler, by Ari Brown, MD, and Denise Fields ? 2006 Ari Brown, MD, and Denise Fields (Windsor Peak Press). For more information, go to toddler411.com.

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