Smart Discipline for Every Age

You expect tantrums from a 2-year-old, but what about a child who's 5? Should you punish a 4-year-old who lies? What's the best age to start giving time-outs? As kids grow, the way you handle bad behavior needs to evolve. Here, top discipline tactics to suit your child.

1-Year-Old

She's curious, energetic, and mobile. Her challenge is to explore her environment.

Typical Behavior:

  • She's beginning to understand language and put words into context. She may not clearly grasp what "no" means or that yesterday's "no" also applies to today's experience.
  • A 1-year-old hasn't learned how the world works -- for instance, that a glass vase can smash if it's knocked over.
  • She wants what she wants now. Waiting is extremely difficult. She has no impulse control.

Best Discipline Strategies:

  • Keep your expectations reasonable. Demonstrate proper behavior, but don't insist on it. Your tone of voice and facial expressions convey lessons best. Be firm yet positive, and don't overreact.
  • Focus on prevention. Childproof your home, and put away breakables. If she grabs an off-limits item, take it away.
  • Handle meltdowns by comforting and distracting. If your 18-month-old struggles to stay out of the car seat, console her and say that you know she dislikes being strapped in but that she must do it. Put her in, then divert her attention.

2-Year-Old

Life is an emotional roller coaster. His challenge is to begin to make sense of his feelings.

Typical Behavior:

  • He constantly experiments and tests his environment to get reactions from others: "What will happen if I refuse to wear my shoes?"
  • He has trouble understanding and communicating his powerful -- and sometimes overwhelming --emotions.
  • He discovers he won't get everything he wants, and he has frequent tantrums.

Best Discipline Strategies:

  • Minimize power struggles. State your expectations clearly -- without yelling. Offer simple choices and don't over-estimate his abilities. If necessary, give him an incentive to cooperate. Realize that his job is to test you.
  • Help him begin to master his feelings. If he hits, teach him to use his words ("I'm mad!"). Explain, "We don't hit" and "Hitting hurts." At about age 2 1/2, he'll start to develop empathy.
  • Handle tantrums with care. Ignore the tantrum and don't give in, but remain close by until it stops. Then direct your child toward positive behavior. Though you shouldn't punish or isolate a 2-year-old with a time-out, you can briefly remove him from a situation to help him calm down.

3-Year-Old

Her budding independence is a source of pride. Her challenge is to gain increasing control of her emotions.

Typical Behavior:

  • Though she wants to carry out requests that she's capable of doing, such as washing before bedtime, don't count on consistent cooperation.
  • She comprehends the idea of cause and effect -- for instance, that being "naughty" leads to a punishment and that behaving well gets your approval.
  • Tantrums can still be common, but she may also sulk or whine. She's starting to handle frustration better.

Best Discipline Strategies:

  • Help with tasks. Don't punish your child for not following through on a request. Explain a job simply, get her started on it, and acknowledge her effort.
  • Rehearse good behavior. Play games to practice routines. For example, try a get-ready-for-day-care game by playing a song and having your child try to finish three tasks before the music stops.
  • Keep consequences short. A 3-year-old is now mature enough to handle a time-out of about three minutes (one minute per year). Head off trouble by averting frustration early.

4-Year-Old

Your preschooler's social skills are blossoming. His challenge is to balance his needs with those of others.

Typical Behavior:

  • He can focus more intently on games and activities. Because of this, making transitions can become especially difficult when he's having fun.
  • He may whine more intensely because he's better able to think about what he lacks and what he wants.
  • He sometimes bends the truth to fit a private version of reality. He doesn't understand that this -- as well as cheating -- is wrong.

Best Discipline Strategies:

  • Allow plenty of time for transitions. Give your child advance notice, and avoid power struggles. For instance, consider granting a polite request to stay a few minutes longer at a playdate if there's no pressing need to leave. If he loses control, explain that the two of you will talk as soon as he can calm himself.
  • Ignore whining. Respond as though your child is asking for something in an ordinary voice, and refuse or agree to the request as you normally would. Don't focus on the whining.
  • Handle lies and cheating calmly. Such behavior is normal at this age. Don't shame your child or dwell on whether he did or did not do something. For instance, if he spills a glass of milk and denies doing it, say, "Those tumblers are hard to handle." Then have him help you clean up. He'll feel understood and less fearful of telling the truth in the future.

5-Year-Old

She grasps concrete consequences. Her challenge is to act according to her emerging sense of conscience.

Typical Behavior:

  • She's learning to put herself in someone else's shoes.
  • A 5-year-old is mature enough to follow rules and do some chores, but she may push the limits to test you.
  • She is establishing better -- though far from perfect -- impulse control. Not getting her way may lead to outbursts, door slamming, and even hitting.

Best Discipline Strategies:

  • Broaden your child's view. Ask, "How would you like someone to do that to you?" Explain the effect of her behavior on others and the reasons for rules.
  • Try a behavior-management system, such as the Smiley Face system, developed by Ruth Peters, Ph.D., author of It's Never Too Soon to Discipline (St. Martin's Griffin, 1998). Each morning, post a sheet of paper with three hand-drawn smiley faces on the refrigerator. Cross out one face after each misbehavior, and write down the nature of the infraction. Impose a consequence when all three faces are crossed out. If your child can get through the day with at least one smiley face left, reward her with a sticker for each.
  • Use limits to emphasize self-control. For instance, set a timer and say, "You have three minutes to stop the fussing or you'll get a time-out."

6- to 7-Year-Old

Your child's world is expanding. His challenge is to handle new social and academic pressures.

Typical Behavior:

  • He shows appropriate self-control in school -- cooperating in groups and raising his hand rather than shouting. Generally, he acts out less often.
  • He has difficulty waiting for long-term rewards and works best with frequent reinforcement.
  • He wants to be treated more maturely because he's learning to handle new responsibilities, but he still needs your help to reach his goals.

Best Discipline Strategies:

  • Encourage independent problem-solving skills. Instead of simply correcting him, teach prevention strategies. For instance, review a situation and help him fill in the blanks: "I fought because Joey wouldn't sit with me. I felt ____." Help him figure out better solutions.
  • Think short-term. If your child keeps his room tidy, don't wait a week to reward him -- provide a small daily incentive to keep him motivated. Your child also needs regular verbal reminders on issues like manners.
  • Use praise to reward helpfulness. Have your 6- or 7-year-old help with chores so he can feel good about pitching in. This will build his self-esteem. In general, reinforce good behavior. If you've got to give a consequence, make sure it corresponds to the problem.

8- to 10-Year-Old

She's learning about groups and social behavior. Her challenge is to figure out where she fits in.

Typical Behavior:

  • She's old enough to follow through on expectations, though you'll see ups and downs as she grows more aware of how she stacks up against her peers.
  • She may swing from being cooperative to being difficult to motivate. She may act preteenish -- sensitive to comments and prone to back talk.
  • She understands basic differences between right and wrong and looks to you for guidance and reinforcement.

Best Discipline Strategies:

  • Talk it out -- sometimes. If her misbehavior is a type that you've discussed before and that your child knows is wrong, don't give it undue attention. Simply administer the consequence. For new problems, discussion is now a great tool. Talk about what happened and why. Then set an appropriate consequence together (but on your terms), and follow through on it.
  • Try more grown-up approaches. Eight- to 10-year-olds respond well to having options. If your child is cutting corners on homework because she's too busy with outside activities, let her pick which ones to drop. She'll learn that life is about making choices and that privileges are earned by good behavior.
  • Emphasize natural consequences and making amends. If your child doesn't put her clothes in the hamper, don't wash them. If she loses her friend's CD, have her replace it. If she's hurtful to a classmate, insist she apologize. This will reinforce your values and help her develop a sense of responsibility.

Sources: Michele Borba, Ed.D., Parents advisory-board member and author of Building Moral Intelligence (Jossey-Bass, 2001); Robin Goodman, director, AboutOurKids.org, New York University Child Study Center, in New York City; Ruth Peters, Ph.D., author of It's Never Too Soon to Discipline (St. Martin's Griffin, 1998); Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D., coauthor of Smart Love (Harvard Common Press, 2001); Lawrence E. Shapiro, Ph.D., author of An Ounce of Prevention (HarperCollins, 2000); Kevin Steede, Ph.D., author of 10 Most Common Mistakes Good Parents Make and How to Avoid Them (Prima, 1998).

3/02

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