It's not too soon to start setting limits and encouraging good behavior from your kid. We'll show you how.
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Too Young to Discipline?
When your 1-year-old screams for candy or throws food out of your cart at the grocery store, it's hard to know how to deal with her misbehaving. After all, a child this age is still too young to be disciplined, right? Not quite. While tactics like time-outs or taking away privileges don't work well on toddlers (they aren't old enough to link cause and effect), this is actually a good time to introduce your child to the concept of right and wrong. "Parents often think of discipline only in terms of punishment, but the origin of the word is 'to teach,' " says psychologist Deborah Roth Ledley, Ph.D., author of Becoming a Calm Mom: How to Manage Stress and Enjoy the First Year of Motherhood. "With 1-year-olds, discipline really should be more about socializing children and teaching them boundaries." You can set your toddler on the path to good behavior with these simple strategies.
Fight the urge to yell at your child when he acts up, because your tone will either make him upset or curious. "Instead, quickly and calmly get him interested in another activity," says psychologist Deborah Roth Ledley, Ph.D., author of Becoming a Calm Mom: How to Manage Stress and Enjoy the First Year of Motherhood. For example, if he's climbing up on the sofa arm, gently move him onto the floor and start reading a book or playing with a toy together. Redirecting his attention not only puts a quick end to unwanted behavior, but it also teaches him over time that some things, like climbing on certain furniture, are off-limits.
You might think that letting your crying child have a cookie before dinner "just this once" is pretty harmless. But giving in to your kid's demands encourages her to pitch another fit the next time she's not getting her way. "It's important to set limits and follow through on them again and again," says Gregory Oliver, a child psychologist at the Henry Ford Health System, in Detroit. You and your spouse also need to be on the same page when it comes to family rules. Sending your child mixed messages about whether she's allowed to splash in the bathtub or has to sit in her high chair when she eats will confuse and frustrate her.
Keep It Positive
If you say the word "No!" to your child all the time, he may start to tune you out -- or worse, begin using it himself when he doesn't want to do something. "Save 'No!' for situations when safety is involved," says psychologist Deborah Roth Ledley, Ph.D., author of Becoming a Calm Mom: How to Manage Stress and Enjoy the First Year of Motherhood. If he's reaching for the oven door, for instance, you should quickly say "No!" in a stern voice. But when his behavior isn't dangerous, phrase your command in positive words: Instead of saying "No! Don't take your shoes off in the car!" try: "Leave them on until we get home, and then you can run around without them."
Show Her How It's Done
Toddlers get more out of watching what you do than listening to what you say, explains Penny Donnenfeld, Ph.D., a New York City psychologist. If your child is too rough with another kid at a play-date, demonstrate the behavior you want by modeling it: say, "Let's hug Emma softly," then take your child's arms and guide her into a gentle hug. Or, if you have a hard time getting her to brush her teeth before bed, make doing it together part of her nightly routine.
Praise Good Behavior
Sometimes, toddlers act out because they lack communication skills -- and it's a surefire way to get your attention. That's why you should always let your child know you're pleased whenever he does something that you like or remembers to follow one of your rules (such as putting his coat on the door hook when he comes inside). By doing this, you'll teach him that good behavior will also get him the attention he craves from you -- and he might just keep it up.
Originally published in the August 2009 issue of Parents magazine.