An age-by-age guide to setting limits.

By Kathryn Perrotti Leavitt
October 03, 2005
Boy disciplined

A Necessary Action

Whenever my 1-year-old son, Luke, is near rocks, he likes to shovel them into his mouth. And when he sees our cat, he likes to lunge, even though the cat likes to swipe and hiss.

These kinds of moments make up any given day, and figuring out how to shield my son from harm without breaking his spirit usually leaves me totally confused. In my humble experience, getting a toddler to stop eating rocks is easier said than done.

At this tender age, traditional discipline, such as time-out, doesn't work. But what does, and at what age is it appropriate to try which tactics? As you may have guessed, it's as necessary for parents to learn how to discipline properly as it is for children to learn that some behaviors are unsafe or just socially inappropriate.

Ultimately, it's a long process, but when it's done well, it will be a positive experience that will help your child.

The Birth of Discipline

Setting limits, reinforcing good behavior, and discouraging less-desirable behavior can start when your child is a young baby, according to experts. "There are things that even young babies have to learn not to do, such as pulling your hair," says Judith Myers-Walls, PhD, associate professor of child development and family studies at Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana.

Because little babies have limited language comprehension, memory, and attention spans, the best strategies to employ early on are more about damage control than about teaching an actual lesson. Distracting (helping him move from a not-so-good activity to something better) and ignoring (just what the name implies) are two very effective strategies. If, for example, your 4-month-old discovers how much fun it is to yank your hair, you might gently remove her hand, give it a kiss, and redirect it toward something fun and appropriate, such as a rattle or other toy.

Of course, you never want to ignore a behavior that's potentially dangerous, but looking the other way when your 7-month-old cheerfully pelts his 59th Cheerio from his high chair is a smart move. It's essential to remember that very young children are utterly guileless; your Cheerio pitcher isn't trying to annoy you. He's learning how to control his hands and beginning to understand the concept of cause and effect. As annoying as this behavior is, it's important not to get upset or overreact.

In fact, a recent study found that 39 percent of parents think that their baby is taunting them when he continually changes channels on the remote. Many parents become frustrated when a child engages in such behaviors, says Nancy Samalin, author of Loving Without Spoiling (McGraw-Hill/Contemporary Books). Your best bet is to maintain a calm demeanor and carry on with what you were doing.

8 to 12 Months

When your baby starts to crawl, around the 8-month mark, it's time to think about setting limits. Suddenly everything -- from the knickknacks on your side table to those rolls of toilet paper under the bathroom sink -- are big no-nos.

A child this age only wants to explore (he has no concept of what he should or shouldn't do), so if you don't want him to touch something, place it out of his reach through childproofing and let child-friendly items take center stage. Experts say this is the best way to help your child stay out of trouble and makes it a lot easier to follow the rules.

Of course, many of us merely say no when we catch our little ones getting into mischief. Unfortunately, it's not a reliable discipline method for kids this age. Your child can comprehend by the tone of your voice that "no" means something different from "I love you," but she doesn't understand the real meaning of the word. Furthermore, she doesn't have the self-control to heed your request.

Use other techniques to reinforce the lesson that some things are off-limits, as Cristina Soto of New York City does. "Starting at around 8 or 9 months, every time my daughter Sonia got near an outlet, I'd say 'Aah aaah!' in a playfully scary voice so she'd stop and look at me," says Soto. "I kept doing it. After a while she'd cruise over to an outlet, point, and say, 'Aah aaah!' to me."

12 to 24 Months

Around this age, your child's communication skills are blossoming, so you can start explaining basic rules -- don't pull kitty's tail -- for example. You can also begin using the word no judiciously, in serious situations. Too many could wear out the word and eventually render it completely useless.

Your child's physical skills are coming into full play, too. Your new little walker will likely be thrilled with his freshly minted independence -- and frustrated that he can't do all the things he'd like.

Enter the age of tantrums. While tantrums require a quick response from you, these emotional thunderstorms are a part of growing up and not a cue for harsher discipline techniques, such as taking away a privilege or sending a child to his room.

When tantrums strike, "you need to know your own child," says Claire Lerner, a child development specialist at Zero to Three. Some kids calm down quickly through distraction; others need a hug. But if a tantrum is lengthy, remove your child from the situation and gently explain what's going on ("We can't stay in the store if you continue screaming") until he calms down.

Frustration that stems from your toddler's inability to communicate effectively can lead to hitting or biting, too. Disciplining such scenarios involves telling your child what not to do quickly and simply and redirecting him toward an appropriate activity. For example, if your child hits you because you've interrupted his play for a diaper change, say, "We don't hit, it hurts," and give him a toy he can play with while you diaper him.

24 to 36 Months

The two-year mark ushers in twos' programs, preschool, and play dates, which are great for your child's socialization skills but also present a new set of discipline problems. Sharing -- toys, time, and attention -- is difficult at this age. What complicates matters further is that folks (and kids!) outside your family may end up in the path of a toy-snatching toddler who happens to belong to you.

Toddlers understand easy commands, empathy, and cause and effect, so you can now employ these concepts when you discipline. If your child grabs a crayon from his friend, for example, you can say, "We don't grab toys. Taking Billy's crayon hurts his feelings," and then give him a similar crayon to play with.

A key to disciplining toddlers and preschoolers is to keep things very simple. According to a study conducted by Susan G. O'Leary, PhD, professor of psychology at The State University of New York at Stony Brook, those moms with long reprimands were less effective than those with short and direct ones.

Susan Simmons of South Riding, Virginia, the mother of 2-1/2-year-old Mia, agrees. "When Mia hit 2, I started giving her long explanations as to why she couldn't do something, but I realized she didn't understand. Now when she wants to have an ice pop before dinner, I just say 'You can't have one now,' and leave it at that."

Using Time-Outs

Kids between the ages of 24 to 36 months are also ready for you to try using time-outs. Time-out works like this: When your child misbehaves, for every year of his age, he gets one minute to sit quietly in a chair or in his room to calm himself down (for example, a 3-year-old gets three minutes). He gets up when you say time-out is over.

Of course, every child is different, and no one discipline method will work all the time. But the more practice you get doling it out and the more your child understands boundaries, the happier everyone will be.

Kathryn Perrotti Leavitt, a mother of one, is a freelance writer based in Boulder, Colorado.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, November 2004.

American Baby