The 20 Commandments of Toddler Discipline

It's a sin to let your child off the hook just because you think she's too young to understand rules and consequences.

First 10 Commandments

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."

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