Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Toddler Tuesday: 5 tips for your first steps in discipline.

Telling your baby "no"is kind of hard the first few times, but as time goes on and your little rebel begins finding more and more ways to get your heart rate up, it hardly seems sufficient. When the day comes that you tell your little mongoose "no" and he responds by looking right at you while he does it anyway, the time has come for discipline. The word discipline can conjure up some pretty nasty memories for some folks, so let me be clear, I do not in any way, ever, for any reason advocate physical violence against children, including spanking or any other form of corporal punishment. Discipline does not have to be mean or rough, it simply needs to be consistent, age (and developmentally) appropriate and clear. As your children get older your own unique forms of discipline will develop naturally from the discipline you established early on. The following are a few tips for creating a stable foundation for discipline.

1. Pick 3 or 4 easily enforceable rules to start.
To make sure your little sugar bun is able to grasp this new concept of "rules", don't overwhelm her. Pick a few very important or common things that you are having some behavior issues around. Then word your rules regarding those few things in easy to remember rhymes. Some examples might be: "The food stays on your tray, or I'll take it away.", "Share your toys, at least one, or these toys are all done." and "If you touch trash, we have to give your hands a wash". The reason to have the rules rhyme is to differentiate them from normal language, so your toddler can easily recognize them. This also keeps things that are rules clarified from normal "yes" and "no" directions or guidance. As time goes on and you need to add more official rules to the list, you don't need to use rhymes, but expressing the new rule clearly will help your child know what is expected of them.

2. Always identify the consequence with the rule.
If possible, try to include the consequence for breaking a rule as part of the original rhyme. This will assist your toddler in relating the cause and effect principle to their own actions. If the whole rhyming thing makes you feel silly, using a nice rhythm is nearly as effective. You might try something like: "If paper goes in your mouth it goes in the trash" and "Throwing your toys makes them go away".

3. Dangerous things are more serious.
For some things you need to really get your little pupil's attention. Things like touching the oven, or poking things into outlets, are dangerous behaviors, and need something more than words to help your toddler remember why she shouldn't do them. When your little chef reaches for the knobs on the front of the stove, in an authoritative and slightly loud voice say "No! Dangerous!". Then flip your finger against the fingertips of your little one just before you grab her hands to lead her away. The flipping of the fingertips creates a sharp sudden discomfort that goes away quickly. This discomfort will be associated both with the stove and with the words "no" and "dangerous", which will help curb the behavior more quickly next time. Eventually, you will be able to tell your child that something is dangerous, and they will avoid it on their own.

4. Tone of voice.
It is very important that you do not engage in games with your little clown while trying to enforce discipline. If you use a playful friendly voice when you tell your toddler to stop throwing cereal on the floor, chances are that the activity will be recognized as a game, and even more cereal will get thrown to the floor. Think of the tone of voice that a police officer has, no-nonsense, firm and serious, this is the perfect tone of voice to use when reminding your little bib decorator about the rules. No need to shout or raise your voice, a clear definitive recitation of the rule, followed by immediate enforcement, is all that it takes to get the message across. You don't need to act "mad" or "cross" with your toddler, as a matter of fact if the enforcement of the rule makes him cry, you can immediately comfort and snuggle him, just do not apologize for enforcing the rule. It is important that your toddler sees you as being just as subject to the rules as he is. If you apologize, you will be identifying yourself as the cause for the loss of the toy instead of reinforcing that it was the actions of your toddler that lead to the toy being gone. Take a moment while comforting your little snoopy to re-tell the story of how the consequence happened, and be sure to lay full blame on the actions that your toddler chose, not on you, and not on your toddler, squarely on the choice of actions.

5. Remove attention from bad behavior.
Since you will no doubt have many more rules than 3 or 4 that you would like to implement, a good tool to discourage undesirable behavior that you don't have a rule for yet is to express a kind of disappointed lack of interest when your little bug-catcher acts out. For example, if your toddler throws her cup on the floor during lunch, don't look surprised and make a game out of it. Look down slowly, then let your eyes wander away from your toddler while muttering something like "that's too bad, guess you're not thirsty." This lack of reaction will bore your toddler quickly, and they will move on to fun activities that get a big giggle out of mommy, like taking a big bite or holding their spoon just right. You can replace the dropped sippy cup when your little lunch-muncher is not paying attention.

Trick: Model discipline behaviors with toys.
While playing with your toddler on the floor, take some time to act out some social scenarios with a couple of the stuffed animals, including breaking rules and obeying them. Giving your toddler a physical visual reference for what will happen if a rule is broken will help them anticipate consequences and make choices that have a more desirable outcome.

Trick: Positive feedback.
This is probably the hardest skill to develop for effectively disciplining your toddlers. The fact is that when they are behaving, we just don't notice them as much. It is very important that you make a concerted effort to identify, point out and celebrate the times when your toddler is faced with the choice of obeying a rule or disobeying it, and he chooses obedience. Over time you will not have to be as aware and engaged in your child's choices all the time, but at the outset, it will make learning the concept of following rules, and making smart choices, easier to grasp.

Beginning the disciplining process with your little star is never going to be easy, but if you start early, at around 12 or 18 months, not only will the twos go a bit more smoothly, but you will have a solid foundation on which to base future rules. Toddlers are bright and will catch on pretty quick to the way things really work, so if you are having trouble maintaining discipline, take a hard look at how you are implementing the new rules, and especially your tone of voice. Chances are, with a few tweaks, you will be able to convince your little bunny that you mean business, and the behavior problems will melt away. If you have found these tips to be helpful, please forward them to any parents of toddlers you might know. Questions, comments and suggestions* are always welcome. Happy parenting.

*This topic was suggested by @katrinayellow, follow her on twitter. She is a great resource for breast feeding information!

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