Teaching Acceptable Limits

As soon as your child can reach, pull, walk, and talk, it's time to teach acceptable limits. Here's how to get those lessons to stick.

Introduction

The frustration of trying to teach proper behavior to a 1-year-old is something all parents share. Whether you're attempting to elicit please and thank you, prohibit pinching, or encourage sharing, getting a toddler to do as you say can be an epic struggle. The reasons lie in both the milestones and the limitations of development during this second year of life.

The Thrill of the Skill

Between the ages of 1 and 2, children make astonishing cognitive leaps, but their comprehension is still enormously undeveloped. When it comes to rules, what we call common sense simply doesn't exist for them yet, says Fred Rothbaum, Ph.D., a professor in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development at Tufts University, in Medford, Massachusetts. In addition, he says, toddlers don't have the ability to anticipate what others want.

It's no wonder, then, that 20-month-old David Seim had no idea that his mother, Dawn, would be angry when he colored all over the wall. "Scribbling on big, blank sheets of paper has always been okay, and it's lots of fun," says Seim, of Charleston, South Carolina. "But now I somehow have to explain why the wall, which looks pretty much like a big, blank sheet of paper, is definitely not okay."

Toddlers' limited capacity to understand language adds to the difficulty of teaching them what's allowed and what isn't. "One-year-olds have some rudimentary use of words and a little comprehension," Dr. Rothbaum says. "But language on its own is not a powerful way to communicate with a 1- or a 1½-year-old." Long verbal explanations basically pass toddlers by.

In fact, even the relatively simple words and ideas that may accompany your lessons are often too advanced. The notion of hot, for instance, is difficult to get across. Concepts of time are even more bewildering. That's why it's pointless to ask your son to "wait a minute" for you to get off the phone before you read to him: What on earth is a minute?

Young children also have an extremely hard time delaying gratification of their desires and impulses, even if holding off means getting something better later, says Alison Gopnik, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley and coauthor of The Scientist in the Crib (William Morrow and Company, 1999). In one study, researchers placed a candy in front of kids and told them that if they waited ten minutes before eating it, they would get two candies. Universally, the toddlers grabbed that one piece. It's a huge job for a toddler to wait his turn, because he doesn't perceive a payoff; it's simpler to snatch the shovel he wants from another child's hands.

Your child's developmental advances can also work against your immediate objectives. Sara Berwald, for instance, is thrilled with her new ability to push the TV's power button and wants to try out her skill repeatedly. When she peers at her parents, it's not to show how devious she is but rather to receive confirmation of what she is learning: When I touch this, Daddy's face crinkles up and he says, "No!"

Your Reactions Count

Despite these developmental obstacles, there is hope for parents determined to teach basic dos and don'ts. Studies show that children as young as 12 months start social referencing: They look to their primary caregivers to get information about things they don't understand. Your toddler can learn a lot about what's right or wrong, good or bad, from your reactions to situations, people, and objects.

As they near their second birthday, toddlers begin identifying with others' feelings. "You can use this empathy to explain to a toddler that he shouldn't bite, because it would be an ouch," Dr. Gopnik says.

But just as it takes time for your little one to learn favorite songs, it will be a while before she shows by her deeds that she fully comprehends your lessons. Extraordinary patience is required as you pass along crucial information about what is acceptable.

Is it even worth the effort, then, to start at such a young age? Absolutely, experts say. Just as you begin speaking to your child from infancy, teaching him words that may not be internalized for years, so you must start educating him about avoiding dangerous or annoying activities and practicing social niceties. Just realize that your goal is a long-term one.

How to Make Lasting Progress, Starting Now

Don't just say it, show it. Because words alone often fail to get the message across, use your face and tone to convey your lesson. Saying, "Don't touch the stove" with little emotion won't have the power of the same words spoken sternly and accompanied by a sad or angry face.

Likewise, convey a sharp, clear reaction instead of a drawn-out scolding, and then return to a neutral mode. "Stop your reaction so it doesn't turn into a battle," Dr. Gopnik says.

Be consistent. If putting her hand in the dog food is sometimes condemned and other times ignored, a toddler is left wondering, Is this a do or a don't? Then she's tempted to continue experimenting. Repeating again and again the information you want your child to have will eventually result in a lesson learned.

Be a good role model. Your toddler constantly looks to you for information. This means that you, too, have to be on your best behavior -- using please, stifling road rage, and waiting your turn. You can point out your manners to set an example: "See how Mommy gives Daddy part of the newspaper? We're sharing!"

Be realistic. Because some behaviors are just too much to expect from a toddler, parents should take preventive measures, Dr. Rothbaum says. For instance, toddlers instinctively put things in their mouth to find out about them. So make sure barrettes and other potentially harmful small objects are out of your child's reach. Similarly, you may also choose to tie your hair back to prevent pulling or move the television out of your toddler's reach.

Choose your battles. There will inevitably be times when getting a message across to your toddler is impossible. "Everyone who has a 1-year-old knows that if toddlers are tired enough, they can melt down with little or no provocation," Dr. Rothbaum says. If your child is exhausted or hungry, it's probably the wrong time to insist on politeness.

Realize that you simply cannot be on top of every no-no all the time. So decide which issues are important and which you can let slide a little. Safety concerns, such as staying away from electrical sockets and not biting, clearly take priority. But if a behavior is more irritating than hurtful, you may decide to live with it temporarily.

And keep in mind that what you perceive as a don't may look like a wonderful adventure to a toddler whose creativity is starting to bloom. So rather than shout a protest the next time your child pulls every pot out of the cabinet and starts drumming, why not join her and bang out a beat together?

Better Behavior Basics

The following "dos" will help you get immediate results when your child's behavior is dangerous or inappropriate. The "trys" are smart ways to begin teaching the long-term lessons that will ultimately result in better behavior.

If you child... Do Try
Bites a playmate

Remove him quickly from the other child and utter a sharp "No!" Ask him to say, "Sorry"
(without insisting that he do it).
Grabs a toy from another child

Return the toy and distract your child.

When the other child is through with the toy, say to your child, "Now it's your turn."
Tries to eat something inedible

Sweep it out of her mouth and firmly say, "Yuck!"
With a smile, show the object's real use. For instance, say, "Crayons aren't for eating. We draw pictures with them."
Is talking too loudly in a restaurant or another public place
Find a distraction that will quiet him down.
Explain that he's using his "outside voice" and that you're indoors now.

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