elevating child care

No Bad Kids – Toddler Discipline Without Shame (9 Guidelines)

A toddler acting out is not shameful, nor is it behavior that needs punishing. It’s a cry for attention, a shout-out for sleep, or a call to action for firmer, more consistent limits. It is the push-pull of your toddler testing his burgeoning independence. He has the overwhelming impulse to step out of bounds, while also desperately needing to know he is securely reined in. There is no question that children need discipline. As infant expert Magda Gerber said, “Lack of discipline is not kindness, it is neglect.” 

The key to healthy and effective discipline is our attitude. Toddlerhood is the perfect time to hone parenting skills that will provide the honest, direct, and compassionate leadership our children will depend on for years to come.

Here are some guidelines: 

1)      Begin with a predictable environment and realistic expectations.  A predictable, daily routine enables a baby to anticipate what is expected of him. That is the beginning of discipline. Home is the ideal place for infants and toddlers to spend the majority of their day. Of course, we must take them with us to do errands sometimes, but we cannot expect a toddler’s best behavior at dinner parties, long afternoons at the mall, or when his days are loaded with scheduled activities.  

2)      Don’t be afraid, or take misbehavior personally. When toddlers act out in my classes, the parents often worry that their child might be a brat, a bully, an aggressive kid.  When parents project those fears, it can cause the child to internalize the negative personas, or at least pick up on the parent’s tension, which often exacerbates the misbehavior. Instead of labeling a child’s action, learn to nip the behavior in the bud by disallowing it nonchalantly. If your child throws a ball at your face, try not to get annoyed. He doesn’t do it because he dislikes you, and he’s not a bad child. He is asking you (toddler-style) for the limits that he needs and may not be getting.

3)      Respond in the moment, calmly, like a CEO.  Finding the right tone for setting limits can take a bit of practice. Lately, I’ve been encouraging parents that struggle with this to imagine they are a successful CEO and that their toddler is a respected underling. The CEO corrects the errors of others with confident, commanding efficiency. She doesn’t use an unsure, questioning tone, get angry or emotional. Our child needs to feel that we are not nervous about his behavior, or ambivalent about establishing rules. He finds comfort when we are effortlessly in charge.

Lectures, emotional reactions, scolding and punishments do not give our toddler the clarity he needs, and can create guilt and shame.  A simple, matter-of-fact “I won’t let you do that. If you throw that again I will need to take it away” while blocking the behavior with our hands is the best response. But react immediately. Once the moment has passed, it is too late. Wait for the next one!

4)      Speak in first person. Parents often get in the habit of calling themselves “mommy” or “daddy”. Toddlerhood is the time to change over into first person for the most honest, direct communication possible. Toddlers test boundaries to clarify the rules. When I say “Mommy doesn’t want Emma to hit the dog”, I’m not giving my child the direct (‘you’ and ‘me’) interaction she needs. 

5)      No time out. I always think of infant expert Magda Gerber asking in her grandmotherly Hungarian accent, “Time out of what? Time out of life?” Magda was a believer in straightforward, honest language between a parent and child. She didn’t believe in gimmicks like ‘time-out’ , especially to control a child’s behavior or punish him. If a child misbehaves in a public situation, the child is usually indicating he’s tired, losing control and needs to leave.  Carrying a child to the car to go home, even if he kicks and screams, is the respectful way to handle the issue. Sometimes a child has a tantrum at home and needs to be taken to his room to flail and cry in our presence until he regains self-control. These are not punishments, but caring responses.

6)      Consequences. A toddler learns discipline best when he experiences natural consequences for his behavior, rather than a disconnected punishment like time-out. If a child throws food, his or her mealtime is over. If a child refuses to get dressed, we don’t go to the park today. These parental responses appeal to a child’s sense of fairness. The child may still react negatively to the consequence, but he does not feel manipulated or shamed. 

7)      Don’t discipline a child for crying. Children need rules for behavior, but their emotional responses to the limits we set (or to anything else for that matter) should be allowed, even encouraged. Toddlerhood can be a time of intense, conflicting feelings.  Children may need to express anger, frustration, confusion, exhaustion and disappointment, especially if they don’t get what they want because we’ve set a limit. A child needs the freedom to safely express his feelings without our judgment.  He may need a pillow to punch — give him one.

8)      Unconditional love. Withdrawing our affection as a form of discipline teaches a child that our love and support turns on a dime, evaporating because of his momentary misbehavior. How can that foster a sense of security? Alfie Kohn’s New York Times article, “When A Parent’s ‘I Love You’ Means ‘Do As I Say’,” explores the damage this kind of “conditional parenting” (recommended by experts like talk show host Phil McGraw and Jo Frost of “Supernanny”) causes, as the child grows to resent, distrust and dislike his parents, feel guilt, shame, and a lack of self-worth.

9)    Spanking – NEVER. Most damaging of all to a relationship of trust are spankings.  And spanking is a predictor of violent behavior.  Time Magazine article, “The Long-Term Effects of Spanking” , by Alice Park,  reports findings from a recent study: “the strongest evidence yet that children’s short-term response to spanking may make them act out more in the long run.  Of the nearly 2,500 youngsters in the study, those who were spanked more frequently at age 3 were much more likely to be aggressive by age 5.”

Purposely inflicting pain on a child cannot be done with love. Sadly however, the child often learns to associate the two.

Loving our child does not mean keeping him happy all the time and avoiding power struggles. Often it is doing what feels hardest for us to do…saying “No” and meaning it.

Our children deserve our direct, honest responses so they can internalize ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, and develop the authentic self-discipline needed to respect and be respected by others. As Magda Gerber wrote in Dear Parent – Caring For Infants With Respect, “The goal is inner-discipline, self-confidence and joy in the act of cooperation.”

  I offer a complete guide to respectful discipline in my new book:

NO BAD KIDS: Toddler Discipline Without Shame


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564 Responses to “No Bad Kids – Toddler Discipline Without Shame (9 Guidelines)”

  1. avatar Kim says:

    I have a 4 yr old son and do not believe in spanking. I have been using Love and Logic discipline techniques. I like the book because it gives an understanding of why kids do some of the things they do and therefore gives a better understanding of what might work along with many proactive techniques. Example of logical consequence for a 2 year old throwing food is to make them clean it up. Now obviously they are not going to do a great job of it but the action and time spent taking responsibility for their actions is a real life lesson. For my son it’s not a punishment but just what “responsible” people do. At age 4 he has a good grasp of what responsible is.

  2. avatar Kate says:

    I’m trying really hard to discipline my 2.5 year old (wild) boy in a respectful manner. He acts out constantly (I’m aware he does it for the attention). The only thing that works lately is threatening to take away his favorite toy if he repeats the negative behavior again (I give him one warning and then follow through). I feel like a broken record though. I threaten to take away the same toy over and over and over throughout the day (but it usually works). Does this sound like the right course of action? The threats are just kind of getting on my last nerve (I annoy myself having to hear the same threat repeatedly), but will continue if it’s the right way to implement a consequence. My husband and I just purchased your book but I’d love some quick advice as I’m feeling very frustrated! (Off topic but my child also goes around telling family members he doesn’t like them and to go away, which really hurts both their feelings and mine! Is that normal toddler behavior?! He hits my father and tells him he doesn’t like him, and it’s just so sad. Not sure how to correctly handle…) Thanks SO much!

    • avatar Amy says:

      Hi Kate,

      I wouldn’t threaten to take away a toy unless that toy was being thrown at something you didn’t like (and you’d explained that he shouldn’t do that), or used to hurt someone. If he hits you and you take a random toy away, it isn’t a natural consequence.

      Perhaps you could supply an example of his behaviour?

  3. avatar Helen says:

    Great article. I have a 6 year old boy, do you have any article specific for discipline 6-7 year kids, especially boys?
    I have been blamed for being too soft in it…

  4. avatar Pamela says:

    I have a 3 year old who behaves well at home but when were outside or in someone else’s home he’s the complete opposite, he doesn’t listen ,he laughs at me trying to discipline him and it makes me feel embarrassed and angry which leads me to spank him, it works sometimes but for the most part not really because he’ll continue to do the same things that got him in trouble.. It’s so bad that I try my hardest to not go out in public with him and if I have to I’m nervous inside the whole time waitin to see what he’s gona do . I really dnt want to spank him anymore I dnt want him to get used to that and be violent in the future..I really need some great advice I jus can’t handle this anymore it makes me go crazy

  5. avatar Mandy says:

    I have a 3 year old daughter who I love more than anything, but can work me up into a ball of anger. I recently had another baby, and have not been able to spend the time with my 3 year old that I have in the past. I understand that she acts out when she needs attention, and I know that I am not responding in the correct ways. Often times, she will wake the baby up when I beg her to quiet down, which will cause me to yell, and send her to bed for a nap. She then screams, which I attempt to correct by telling her if she is going to scream I will close her door. I let her know that crying is ok, but not screaming. I am at my wits end. I am trying so hard to balance a new baby, and her, and the home, and I find myself being short with her, and not wanting to spend time with her playing (because it was a long day, with the baby getting no naps, and 5-8 temper tantrums) Her dad left us, and is no longer around, and right after the baby was born. So confused. I dont want my relationship with my daughter to continue to deteriorate

  6. avatar James says:

    What is the natural consequence for violence? Our 19 month old thinks it’s funny to hit his infant sister. I would be grateful for suggestions about extinguishing this behavior.

  7. avatar Nat says:

    If a child refuses to get dressed, we don’t go to the park today. That’s fine.
    More often the problem is my 3yo son refusing to get dressed so i can take him to daycare & get myself to work. He loves daycare, & only goes a couple of days a week, but the consequences in your example of the park don’t work here.
    Any suggestions?

    • avatar janet says:

      How about… “I’ll be in the kitchen (or somewhere). Please say “ready” when you want me to help you get dressed.” This gives children the sense of autonomy they crave. You’ll almost always hear a bright, “ready!” Then, consider this a pleasant time to connect… Give yourself enough time so that it isn’t rushed and you aren’t annoyed.

  8. avatar Heather says:

    you lost me at no spanking, excuse me if im wrong but before my great great grandparents were raised up until current generation god teaches us not to spare the rod, and correct me if im wrong but back in the day, you could walk to a friends house without getting kidnapped or murdered, you could work at a store and not get robbed, you were more safe in the world then you are now. Today so many ppl are “scared” to spank or discipline their child (i didnot say beat- i said spank)bc they believe its child abuse or their kid will be violent. I grew up and had my fair share of spankings, i am not nor have i ever been, nor has ANYONE in my extended family who has been spanked been violent. EVER. We are very kind, respectable, loving and honest people.Im a good mother, have a trying at times but great son who respects me and understands im his mother not his bff, And in my opinion the problem is ppl who dont understand why god wants us to correct our children by not sparingthe rod…sure, some moms dont wanna be the bad guy and “spank” bc god forbid their kid grows up to be violent- yet today most of society refuses to spank- and yet today we live in a world filled with so much murder,stealing, and crimes that i honestly believe if they had parents following gods word and disciplining like they did back in the day when older generations knew what they were doing we would live in a better world.
    of course im sorry if i offend anyone, not my attentions to offend, but i stand by the teachings of god.

    • avatar Michael says:

      Hi, Heather… there are informative web sites with violent crime statistics that may either make you feel better or worse about our country today. The fact is, violent crime in the US has been on a steep decline over last 25 years. Cause and effect can be very personal things, depending upon your experience and environment. but your great, great grandparents lived in very violent times compared to today. Good news, yes?

    • avatar Jen Tejada says:


      You might really love to read: “The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things.” And then you might also be interested to read this: http://www.economist.com/blogs/charlemagne/2013/07/spanking-and-crime-rates

  9. avatar Lori says:

    My toddler lately has been throwing food on the floor during dinner. I’ve decided that that is the end of mealtime but sometimes I worry about sending her to bed hungry. (She is 21 months) Should I offer another thing to eat? Should I end it there? I’m not sure about the approach I take. I don’t want her to think if she fusses enough that she gets to eat what ever she wants.

  10. avatar ash says:

    After seeing the kids these days; self entitled, spoiled, and running over their parents….I think I will just keep parenting the way I was patented. These young adults have no morals, no cares about others’ feelings, and no sight of the future and how their actions now reflect on that. Parents have spared the rod and have spoiled the children. I was disciplined by an authoritative father who was very busy and very poor. We didn’t have the time together for him to sit down with me every single time I thought of doing something bad. When he noticed the behavior, when I acted out, and when I did things to push buttons, I was spanked And/or grounded from many fun things. This taught me that my actions had consequences. The New style of parenting teaches kids that the bad things they do are okay, but just don’t do it right now, and “I’m not going to properly discipline you for it in fear of inflicting pain……even though you will go through immense amounts of emotional and physical turmoil as an adult.”

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