Think your child is too young to be disciplined? He's not. Here's how.

messy toddler
Credit: Alexandra Grablewski

Should I Discipline My Toddler?

Let's face it: Raising a 1-year-old is a constant challenge. Your child is old enough to start doing things on his own. But a lot of what he wants to do is dangerous, messy, hurtful, or downright maddening. And he's really not old enough to know better. The truth is, kids this age aren't being willfully defiant -- they simply need to hear a command numerous times before it sinks in. But you can also use these difficult moments as an opportunity to teach and discipline him.

Discipline? At this age? Yes, that's right. While it's much too early to start taking away privileges, this is the perfect time to lay the foundation for better behavior. "Your toddler is constantly testing what's acceptable and what's not," says Cheryl Erwin, coauthor of Positive Discipline: The First Three Years. "By setting basic rules and following through, you're helping him learn." The key is to use the right discipline method. Check out these smart ways to correct four common toddler transgressions.

"My 1-Year-Old Is Always Looking for Trouble"

The best defense: Babyproof first, and divert your child's attention second.

Your toddler is curious about her world, and as soon as she's mobile, she'll start exploring. Take precautions, such as putting locks on your toilets and gates at the foot and top of the stairs. For areas that are harder to safeguard (like a radiator), tell your child in a calm but firm tone, "No, don't touch that." If she's still focused on the forbidden object, distract her with a game, a book, or something fun. When 13-month-old Bessie Rosone heads for the fireplace, her mother, Susan, whips out some toys that Bessie hasn't seen for a while. When she starts crawling for it again? "We move to another room," says the mom from Phoenixville, Pennsylvania.

"My Child Bangs His Bowl on the Table Before Dumping His Dinner on the Floor"

The best defense: End the meal.

As soon as 15-month-old Henry Walch of Overland Park, Kansas, starts flinging his food, his dad, Rob, knows his son is ready for the next activity. "I'd like him to sit and eat longer, but the floor gets messy," says Rob. Plus, toddlers usually throw food because they're bored. With their short attention span, 1-year-olds will last 15 minutes -- tops -- at the dinner table. The trick is to keep meals short (even if it means you have to eat later or take turns with your spouse), pay attention while he eats, and respond consistently when he starts tossing his carrots. For example, take him out of the high chair and say, "Food is for eating, not throwing." Then find a more productive outlet for your child's energy ("Let's build a block tower together"). If you follow this plan, your cleanups should get easier within a few weeks.

"My 18-Month-Old Plays Rough with the Dog"

The best defense: Show her the right way.

Don't be too hard on your child: Empathy doesn't always kick in this early -- it may take until age 4. For now, explain in simple terms why her behavior isn't acceptable: "Ow! That hurt Rex. Now he's sad." Kids this age may not recognize when they're being overly aggressive, so they need you to step in. "It's up to parents to model and teach appropriate behaviors," says Marcy Safyer, director of Adelphi University Institute for Parenting, in Garden City, New York. Try holding your child's hand, walking gently toward your pet, and saying, "Let's use two fingers and pet Rex softly. Can you try that?"

"My Daughter Melts Down If She Doesn't Like the Clothes I've Picked"

The best defense: Give her a choice.

Tantrums are a way of life for toddlers because they're not yet capable of managing or communicating their frustration in another way. But you can defuse many meltdowns by letting your child feel as if she has some control. Lay two outfits on the floor, for example, and make it her "job" to pick one. If your child still loses it, help her to calm down by taking a time-out from the situation, getting down on her level, and letting her know that you're listening to her and you understand why she's upset.

What Your Toddler's Thinking

If it seems like your child is constantly up to no good, keep in mind that the world looks very different from where he sits.

What you see: Your child melts down in the supermarket.What your toddler thinks: I'm tired (or hungry or bored), and this shopping trip is never-ending.

What you see: A tiny hand pulling on the cat's tail.What your toddler thinks: I'm curious about this creature. I wonder what will happen if I pull on this thing?

What you see: Bite marks on your older child's arms.What your toddler thinks: I want that toy!

What you see: Little feet dashing away from you when you try to pick him up.What your toddler thinks: This game of chase is fun. I wonder if Mommy can catch me.

Discipline Dos and Don'ts

  • Don't hit. That sends the message that it's okay to use force. Plus, a young child can't yet connect his misdeed to your response.
  • Don't overuse the word "no." Toddlers who hear this term all the time will tune it out. Focus on what he can do instead: "Why don't you jump on the floor, not the couch?"
  • Don't cave in when she cries. If you do, you'll set a precedent for future sobfests.
  • Do stay calm. Yelling may startle or scare your child, but it won't improve his behavior.
  • Do catch him being good. Shower your child with kisses, hugs, and praise when he listens or behaves well.
  • Do make eye contact. This shows respect and commands attention.

Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the February 2008 issue of Parents magazine.

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