3 Common Discipline Mistakes -- and How to Fix Them

Is your toddler driving you crazy? For three families, the answer was yes, until the creator of the DVD and book The Happiest Toddler on the Block, Harvey Karp, M.D., watched their little ones in action and offered up his best discipline techniques.
women and their kids

Jenny Risher

Sometime after my daughter June's first birthday, she became her own person -- with a will the size of an elephant. We sparred over nearly everything, which is why I raised a very skeptical eyebrow when pediatrician and Parents advisor Dr. Karp insisted that his discipline methods could stop 50 percent of tot meltdowns in about as much time as you'll spend reading this story. His Happiest Toddler book, like his runaway best-selling DVD and book The Happiest Baby on the Block, is full of simple-sounding steps, along with kid-friendly scripts. The DVD version even shows him taming a few very fiery toddlers. But I had to wonder how the good doctor would handle my feisty little girl -- and other kids like her. Parents asked my family and two others for home-video footage documenting our discipline challenges. Dr. Karp pored over them and offered his expert advice for each scenario. Guess what? It turns out his simple tips and tactics worked surprisingly quickly -- and they can help your family too.

Exhibit A

Cara Birnbaum and June

Jenny Risher

The Toddler June, now 3, daughter of Cara Birnbaum (me!)

The Discipline Mistake Instantly giving in to whining

The Footage While eating breakfast in her high chair, June, then 2, freaks about the crusts on her cranberry-nut bread, wailing, "No crusts! No crunchy part!" I drop everything and frantically cut off the edges of the bread. Just another relaxing breakfast at home, with me playing the short-order cook -- scrambling eggs, whipping up smoothies, and de-crusting bread -- in the hope that June will finally stop her incessant demands.

Dr. Karp's Advice

Dr. Karp Says All of us cave in sometimes, but doing it too much only encourages whining and outbursts. I like the way your voice gets a little higher when you reflect a bit of June's emotions. But next time, instead of immediately complying with a demand, repeat a few short phrases three to six times. Use your voice and gestures to let her know that you totally understand what she wants and how badly she wants it. June is a pretty verbal kid, so shake your head, wave your hand, and try something like, "You say, 'No crust! No crust! No, no, no!' You don't even like this crust!" It might feel odd. But every new skill feels odd in the beginning. Remember, you're talking to someone whose left brain is turned off. (See "Head Cases.")

Once she quiets a bit, boost her self-calming ability with a technique I call "Putting her on hold." Start to remove the crust, then suddenly hold up a finger, and say, "But wait, wait, one second, one second!" Turn and pretend to look for something for five seconds before turning back and finishing the crust-cutting. This teaches her to be patient.

To curb June's habit of issuing orders, try giving her a small list of choices at the start of breakfast ("oatmeal or toast?" "banana or apple?"). Better yet, talk about the breakfast choices you'll have the night before at bedtime, or during quiet doll play. And plan occasional meals with other kids who are especially good at the table.

Exhibit B

Chandra Turner with Grant and Madelyn

Jenny Risher

The Toddler Grant, now 3, son of Chandra Turner, with sister Madelyn, 5. Turner is the executive editor at Parents.

The Discipline Mistake Expecting too much too soon

The Footage For the second week, Grant, then 2, is up at the crack of dawn, waking up Madelyn. He turns their room upside down, covering the floor with clothing, diapers, wipes, bedding, and books. Turner firmly but calmly asks Grant to help clean up, threatening to withhold Dora the Explorer. He refuses. "Outside of making him sleep in the bathroom, I'm at a loss," says Turner. "How can we end this?"

Dr. Karp's Advice

Dr. Karp Says I'm really pleased to see you keep your cool; showing you're upset only encourages his outburst. Don't get into the big bedroom battle for now. Focus on the smaller problems that come up every day. During a calm moment later, announce that you're creating a sticker chart. Choose two things to reward that he already does pretty well and one that he's working on. For instance, reward Grant for eating his breakfast and having his teeth brushed. At this age, he might need more tangible rewards to go along with those stickers, like little checks on the hand. And decide with him what three stickers (or hand checks) are worth -- maybe 15 minutes of Dora or reading a favorite book. Before bed, have fun counting them up and trying to remember what each was for. After a few days of success, set a goal to pick up toys. If that goes well, five days later set a goal of picking up clothes off the floor.

Of course, Grant may be too stubborn to immediately stop trashing his room. But next time he does it, calmly lead him out of the room and engage him in an activity you know he'll cooperate in. High-five him for finishing his eggs and helping you get him dressed -- you might even use a timer to turn the process into a race. Praise him, then bring the timer back into the kids' room, and have Madelyn pick up, say, 20 things while Grant has to pick up two. If he refuses, let him save face: "Okay, Grant, you win -- you can just put one toy in the box." No go? Casually say, "Too bad, no stickers for that today. Let's try again tomorrow!" Reinforce any good deeds with the stickers or a technique I call gossiping, which is loudly whispering your praise to someone else -- "Madelyn, did you see the way Grant put his puzzle away so fast today?" -- while pretending you don't want your other child to hear.

This is a long-range plan. Over one to three weeks he'll start cooperating, and eventually realize that the easiest path to success -- and to Dora -- is not to mess up his room in the first place.

Exhibit C

Laura Kalehoff with Julian and Celeste

Jenny Risher

The Toddler Julian, now 5, with sister Celeste, 3; son of Laura Kalehoff

The Discipline Mistake Not making your child feel heard

The Footage Julian clings to Kalehoff's iPod, refusing to return it. He commands, "Share it!" Kalehoff says, "Jules, I am sharing it," but explains that unless he gives the device back, it could break. By the end of the clip, Julian, then 4, is still clutching the iPod. "I'm easygoing 75 percent of the time," says Kalehoff. "But when something is bound to get lost or broken, I can get a bit overbearing, enforcing rules they didn't even know existed in the first place. And when I do sternly exert my authority, my kids often don't take me seriously -- they will look at each other in mock surprise, gasp, and start laughing!"

Dr. Karp's Advice

Dr. Karp Says Kudos to you for resisting the urge to yell, name-call, or try to distract Julian away from his feelings. We all know what it feels like to be in a losing position. The key to getting good cooperation is the combination of loving acknowledgement and firm boundaries. But by immediately launching into "It can break" and "We have to keep it with the stereo," you've skipped over letting him know that you understand his feelings. And that's making Julian resist even more.

Tap into his emotional right brain by repeating, four or five times, some short, sincere acknowledgment that mirrors a bit of his emotions. I call this simple, heartfelt language "toddler-ese." The advice even works for older kids (and most adults) because the brain's ability to understand complex language -- and to be reasonable -- switches off when they get frustrated, sad, or upset.

So say something like: "You really, really, really love that iPod. It's fun to hold, and I bet you'd like to push the buttons and play with it all day long." When he calms a bit, say, "Hey, I've got an idea. Let's go to the living room, and see what buttons we need to turn on music!" Skip the verbal karate, where you parry every whine with a "No." Rather than arguing against his feelings, try agreeing with him. Then, you can eventually say: "I wish I could let you keep holding it, but it can break if it falls. Do you want to sit on my lap and hold it, or give it to me and we can play with it later?"

Meanwhile, you can prevent some of these encounters down the road by keeping off-limits items out of sight and letting Julian work off some of his energy with lots of outdoor play.

2 More Loving Rules

Discipline doesn't have to feel negative, insists Dr. Karp.

1. Give in to your child's wishes -- in fantasy. Next time he fights you on, say, going to school, Dr. Karp suggests saying something like, "Wow, you really don't want to go to school, huh? Wouldn't it be fun to color and go to the playground?" Then explain that you'll stay for five minutes until the teacher says it's time for you to leave.

2. Feed the meter. "If you want fewer time-outs," says Dr. Karp, "you have to give more 'time-ins.'" Dole out lots of hugs, pats, smiles, and bits of focused attention many times throughout the day. Let your toddler have little victories during the good times, and you'll cut back on the bad times.

Head Cases

While the adult brain is governed fairly equally by its logical, calm left hemisphere and its emotional right hemisphere, toddlers live mostly in their untamed right brain. When a tantrum strikes, your tot's left side shuts down, which is why reasoning through the storm does nothing -- and sometimes fires him up more. The happy news: Once you know this, learning how to communicate with their dominant right brain is a snap. Since this hemisphere responds best to facial cues, body language, and tone of voice, nonverbal communication and short phrases work best to quell tantrums, says Dr. Karp.

Originally published in the February 2012 issue of Parents magazine.

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