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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581 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?

      • avatar janet says:

        Kate – I would focus on acknowledging his feelings and desires… because these are what drive his behavior. It sounds like he doesn’t feel you are hearing his “messages”.

        So, for example, I would acknowledge, “You feel like throwing that toy!” Or, “You’re showing me you don’t feel safe with that toy.” Say this with openness, acceptance, encouragement… like you WANT him to share these feelings with you, while you also assure him… “I will keep you safe…” That might mean saying, “I’m going to need to put this away for now…” and even, “thanks for letting me know you need my help.”

        In other words, connect with your boy, rather than just trying to manage his behavior. Be on his team, acknowledge and accept him, and he will stop.

  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…
    Thanks,
    Helen

    • avatar janet says:

      Thanks, Helen. The thoughts I share in this article and my book would still apply to a 6 year old.

  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

    • avatar janet says:

      This is fear-driven behavior… he feels overwhelmed and out of control. This is very likely because he does not feel safe with the people he needs most to help him… his parents.

  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

    • avatar Kelly says:

      Hi Mandy. I don’t know how long ago you wrote his post, but I’m going through the same thing with my 4 year old…I miss so much the relationship I had with her before my son came, and I feel so guilty.
      I find myself either being too lenient with her, or too harsh. What did you come up with? I’ve just been trying to spend more time with her. I keep telling myself I need a schedule, and have to allot at least 30min/day of qt for just her and I. Haven’t been able to do this yet though. :(

  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:

      Hi,

      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.”

  11. avatar Kelly says:

    Hi there. Thanks for the article it makes a lot of sense. The struggles i am having with my 2 1/2 year old are mainly to do with sibling rivalry. He is constantly hitting or pushing or taking toys away from his one year old sister. Lately i have been sending him to his room when ever he hurts her, but i don’t feel like this is the right solution. I’m just a bit stuck with what to do, and it’s hard not to get emotional in the heat of the moment when your baby girl is screaming in pain. I grew up as the oldest child and was always jealous of my younger sibling, I’m terrified of doing this to my son. I want him to know that i understand him and that I’m there for him always, but the truth is i just don’t understand when he’s constantly hurting her. Any advise you have would be greatly appreciated as I’m at a bit of a loss.

  12. avatar Lisa corbett says:

    I am a big fan of natural consequences. However, what happens when the natural consequence can’t happen. For example- I return to work shortly and my toddler often refuses to get dressed in the morning. I can’t skip work (like I could if we were going to the park). What is a natural consequence for this when we need to get out of the house?

  13. avatar Lili says:

    Hi,
    Thank you for the article. My 3 1/2 year old daughter hits me all the time when she is worked up (usually happens when she is tired). She is very strong and she throws objects at me that are quite dangerous. I try my best to keep myself and her safe during these episodes (which happens daily). And the more I try to block the blows the worse it gets until she finally breaks down and calms down and connects with me. My question is : will this ever end? She doesn’t seem to be learning from these episodes not to hit even though we have a discussion about them afterwards. I have taught her coping skills, but she never uses them. And these tantrum hitting attacks seem to be occurring more frequently. Today for the first time I hit her back because she throw something really hard at my head, which hurt a lot. And after hitting her she stopped hitting me. Even later in the day when she was crying and throwing a tantrum and I can tell she wanted to hit me, but she didn’t. I don’t want to continue to hit her, but it seemed to be the only thing that worked in the past two years to stop her from hitting. I would appreciate your thoughts.
    Thank you,
    Lili

  14. avatar Amna says:

    Thank you so much for sharing these great ideas. I have a 3 1/2 years old daughter and lately she is acting a little strange. She is always angry and doing the things she is not allowed to do. And im going to be honest with you my behavior has changed as well. Instead to talking to her ortKing her to another room to discuss the issue i now yell at her and at times give her time-out and later feel guilty and all. But after reading your blog im again encouraged to handle her with positivity i felt afterwards. And thanks a lot

  15. avatar Jackie says:

    My three year old son has almost run into a busy street twice now. I have a five month old too and when walking about town i’ve lost my grip of my toddler. He takes off running and doesn’t listen to “stop” or “stop your feet”. Ive been lucky to catch him. He is so happy and care free when he’s running, hopping, laughing. He has no idea of the danger even though i’ve told him. The first time we watched the cars go by and talked to him about them and the street. The second time was the first time i ever spanked him. I dont want to crush his high spirit but hes got to listen to me. So how do I get him to stay close to me and to listen when i say stop or come here?

    • avatar Casey Conrad says:

      I have this same problem! Once a police officer saved him from running out the door of a restaurant and into a busy street. I was humiliated. He doesn’t like holding hands or being held. I have to distract him so much with other things, I am starting to wonder if that will cause future development issues…

  16. avatar PeterS says:

    I believe some form of physical punishment is necessary, in love, at times. I am a father of 11 kids the oldest if 25, youngest 2.

    We use it only when the situation demands it and not when we are angry ourselves if at all possible. Usually not in public, and in a controlled manner, and only up to a certain age, after which other things are much more effective and appropriate.

    The main time frame to cover is when they are too young to be reasoned with and will put themselves in real physical danger.

    Usually we follow up after they have calmed down with a hug and something like “Daddy loves you but I can’t let you do naughty things”.

    I haven’t read all the science and it’s probably not suitable in a Childcare situation.

  17. avatar Rhona says:

    Hi,
    Thanks for this article. My son turns 3 in 2 weeks and I have an nearly 5 month old. My problem is my oldest only wants me to do things for him. The worst thing is dressing him in the mornings when I really don’t have time. So his dad wants to get him ready but he screams at him ‘No Mommy!’, or when his dad wants to bath him or give him juice, the same thing. I undrestand this is also an attention thing probably…but my husband takes it personally and then it ends in a horrible scream match between the 2.
    Is there a way to handle that? To get him to allow / understand that Daddy needs to help with certain things or should I just do it?
    Mornings are so stressfull and I’m late every morning because of this.
    Thanks!

  18. avatar Soldier says:

    I was disciplined as a kid and spankings fucking work.
    I learned respect at a very young age.
    I have no respect for what you are saying up in this article.
    Discipline is to be in a 5 step process and not many know those 5 steps.
    I know for a fact you have no idea what I am talking about.

    Also, the start of this discipline change was because of an “expert”(or should I even call him that) that said spanning warps your child’s self esteem. His son committed suicide but it wasn’t due to discpline it was due to bullying.

    And everyone that has power and authority took to it really quick because their children are “little angels”. But they aren’t they’re spoiled. I have been around for 24 years and I have seen and paid attention to the act of removing discipline from the parents hands and the huge effect that has become of it.
    Bullying has gotten worse, the victim has built a bigger shell, the teachers and parents can’t and won’t do anything.

    Since I am certain you don’t know the 5 steps here they are and they work much better than these 9 rules.

    1. Punish immediately.
    2. Tell them why they were punished.
    3. Show them love.
    4. Let them know that every wrong thing
    has a consequence.
    5. Send them on with the rest of their
    day.

    That 5 step guideline is the best working because you will give appropriate punishment (not abuse)

    I talked back to my mom and got mouthful of soap. That worked over time.
    I was stubborn and rebellious so I got spanked that stopped it.
    Disobeyed and got nose and toes to the wall and was not permitted to move.

    The list goes on, but it was all in accordance to the behavior.

    When discipline laws changed, my sister’s became very snotty and would do whatever because they couldn’t get a spanking, mouthful of soap, or any other of the punishments that worked.

    1 day the following happened and it wouldn’t have it discipline laws stayed where they should have.

    My youngest sister is always in with my mom at the adult classes at church. But she started to misbehave and they had to leave early. Her chore when she got home was to wash the dishes. She threw a fit and took my mom’s phone from the counter and his in her room at first.
    I having extremely strong legs used my mom as a brace for my shoulders pressed against the door snapping one of her crutches in half. After which she ran out of the room and up to garage roof.
    She then dialed 911.
    My mom took a walk because of that and came back.
    There were 2 police cars there. They didn’t care what I had to say about the bi me verse. But when they got back to where she was they could tell there was a problem. She wanted to be treated like a preteen but was acting 2. They told her we are not going to treat you that way because you’re acting that way.

    After about 20 mins she finally came down from the garage. And since she had been such a hassle one of the officers wanted to talk to her so he was holding her arm to talk at the side of the house but she resisted and KICKED him so he pulled out his child handcuffs and cuffed her and carried her by her arms to the car and put her in back.

    ALL OF THIS WOULDN’T HAVE HAPPENED IF THE DISCIPLINE LAWS STAYED THE SAME AS BEFORE.

  19. avatar BE says:

    Soldier:
    You are considering yourself respectful? My hope is that people treat you the way you treat them. All 24 years of experience you have and might I add that your brain isn’t fully developed either so watch what you say, if you do “grow up” to be respectful you may actually regret quite a few things. Clearly your behavior has resorted to violence i.e. breaking down doors and cursing at people you don’t even know. This is a site for people of interest, if you aren’t interested move along. Last I checked we still have freedom in this country so do what “you” want with “your” children.
    God Bless You!

  20. avatar Silvana says:

    Hi Janet,
    My 19-month old son started part-time daycare about 1 month ago and for the most part has transitioned pretty well. I just received a text from the daycare that he’s been throwing & hitting others with toys. He started biting dad as of yesterday. What should we be doing to show him this is not okay?

  21. avatar jasmine says:

    I have a 3.5 year old who acts up in public, hits her little brother who,is 16 months old, talks back, throws stuff, takes things from her brother. I have tried the time-out it sometimes help. I do spank on the hand or bottom when right time. I don’t like to spank. It makes me feel bad. But idk how else to make her settle down and do the right consequence. I need help……

  22. avatar Gaylene Notenboom says:

    Hi Janet i am a single mother and have been ever since my girl was born. She is two and a half years old now and is hitting and pinching me when she gets frustrated. She gets frustrated a lot,so I get hit a lot. She will go out of her way to come over to me and be aggressive. I have ordered your book through my local library, it may take weeks to come in. Would you please have any advice directly so that my daughter and I can get back on track. At other times she is a lovely, kind, vibrant and fun girl. Nothing I have tried in the past has helped stop this behaviour. She also pinches another children at day care. I love her dearly and want to help her and understand what is needed or what is missing.

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