My question is about my almost 13 month old son. He is extremely curious and engaged in the world around him. We have always tried to empower him and make him feel safe and supported to try anything and everything (within safety, of course). Drawing from my experiences working as an educator in a school that was very much inspired by Reggio Emilia and Montessori, I try to speak to him in terms of what he can do instead of what he can’t do, and this involves very little – if any – use of the word “no.” I also try to speak in a neutral, even-keeled tone, acknowledge his emotions by making observations rather than quick assumptions (ex. “You seem frustrated. May I help you? etc.”), and utilize the power of gentle touch.
Lately, I’ve been hearing from friends about “discipline” and how at this age, our little ones are “testing” us and we shouldn’t be reinforcing any “bad habits” such as yelling/loud verbalizations, “whining” for things, and doing things we don’t want them to do. I understand that our responses to our children send powerful messages. Personally, I find that compared to my friends, I give my son very few limits and restrictions. As long as something seems physically and socially/emotionally safe, I allow him to try and examine whatever grabs his interest. I feel proud that he is curious and eager to engage and explore.)
What are your thoughts on disciplining an early toddler?
It sounds like your instincts, experience and education have helped you develop an extremely positive relationship with your son. You not only have obvious adoration for him and are rightfully proud, you also view him as a capable individual and treat him that way. This is evident by the way you 1) stay calm and neutral when he is frustrated; 2) tell him what he is allowed to do, rather than wearing out the word ‘no’; 3) acknowledge his feelings and point-of-view even when they are in “disagreement” with you or with a rule; and 4) keep him safe while being careful not to discourage his curiosity. You’re right on track for establishing a relationship of trust and respect that will make discipline an organic, intuitive, less baffling part of parenting your toddler.
I agree with your friends about young toddlers needing behavioral boundaries, but the way we establish those limits and respond to our child’s healthy impulse to test them is what makes all the difference. As you say, our responses send powerful messages — every interaction we have with our child is a learning experience. And that’s why I recommend the respectful “person to person” approach you are taking.
Here are my thoughts and suggestions about early toddler discipline. Since you brought up “yelling/loud verbalizations and whining”, I’ll try to use those behaviors as a running example.
Our needs matter, too
Parenting is about developing a relationship with another person. We make many worthwhile sacrifices when we are raising children, but it’s best to not subjugate all our needs to keep our child “happy”, because a) doing so makes us feel unhappy and resentful; and b) it doesn’t give our children a healthy attitude towards discipline or a realistic expectation about life.
Beginning an honest, respectful approach to discipline means “owning our space” in a relationship with our babies. Just as we are learning about our children, they need to know us — our likes and dislikes, our pet peeves, our limits. We need to get comfortable disagreeing with each other, and infants and toddlers express disagreement by crying or having a tantrum. These are not the urgent cries of pain, distress, or hunger that we would drop everything to address, but they are no less difficult to hear. To develop an honest, balanced person-to-person relationship, our children need to learn early on that we will do our best to give them everything they need, but that they can’t always get what they want…and that’s okay.
For some of us, that might mean demanding a few personal minutes in the morning to have a cup of coffee, take a quick glance at the newspaper, go to the bathroom on our own, or spend a little time in the kitchen preparing their food or ours. Then, holding up our end of the bargain means allowing our child to express his feelings while we stay calm and acknowledge: “You’re upset about how long I’m taking in the kitchen.” “You don’t want me to go.” “I hear you calling me. I’ll be there in 5 more minutes.” “I know you want to climb on me to practice standing, but that’s bothering me. I’m going to help you sit down again.”
In the case of a 13 month old whining or yelling, you could say, “That’s too loud. I can’t understand you when you yell (whine, etc.). Are you asking me to pick you up? I can’t do that right now, but I’ll sit with you for a few minutes when I’m done putting the groceries away.” With an older, more verbal child you might say, “Please speak in your regular voice so that I can understand.” Or “That yelling is hurting my ears. Please stop and talk to me. Tell me what you want.”
So, we are not ignoring the whining or yelling, but we’re not accommodating it either. We’re guiding our child to tell us what he needs as clearly and politely as he can, and then letting him know what we are willing and able to do in response.
From the beginning our job is to make our expectations as clear and consistent as possible. The best way to do this is to give babies predictable, “routine” kinds of days. A daily rhythm helps them to eat, sleep, and play better, and to feel a little control over their world. Rested and fed, babies are much more amenable to our guidance, less likely to feel overwhelmed and misbehave. (Often whining or yelling = tired, hungry or over-stimulated.)
Direct, honest, first person communication.
A good way to remember to treat our baby like a person is to talk to him in the first person. Using “I” and “you” instead of “mommy” and “Joey” works wonders to keep our communication direct and honest. And it’s much easier for our toddler to understand and respond to our guidance when we say calmly, “I don’t want you to hit me” rather than “mommy doesn’t want Joey hitting her” or “We don’t hit” or “We don’t yell” (while the child might be thinking, “Well, I do!”)
Don’t “just say no”.
Our babies sense our respect and learn far more about us and our expectations when we use “no” sparingly and replace it with simple guidance and a brief explanation. “Please don’t hit the dog. That hurts her. You can hit this stuffed animal.” “I can’t let you touch the electric cord. It’s not safe. I’m going to help you let go of it.” Or, “I don’t want you to yell. It hurts my ears, and I can’t understand you. Please show me what you want” Children are also more inclined to listen to “no” when we don’t say it all the time.
Guidance not gimmicks.
Giving person-to-person guidance means saying “no” to gimmicks, tactics and punishments like “time out”. It means not giving distractions or the silent treatment to a child who is yelling, whining (or otherwise misbehaving) to discourage the behavior, but rather asking him directly what he wants to communicate and telling him how we’d like him to say it.
I don’t recommend toddler lingo like, “inside voice”, “use your words” or “that’s not for your hands”. Why? Because we would never say those things to anyone other than a child. (And asking ourselves, “Would I treat an adult this way?” is a good gauge for ensuring respect for our child.) Neither would we bribe or distract a peer to control their behavior.
Dealing with our toddler as a person means insisting he hold our hand when we are walking together rather than leashing or chasing him, and expecting him to sit and not throw his food when he eats. Toddlers are definitely capable of cooperating, but they need to be taught through respectful feedback, corrections and modeling, rather than being tricked, manipulated, coerced.
Curiosity rocks. Don’t discourage it.
Our instinct as parents might be to say, “Oh no, don’t do that”, when our toddler surprises us by suddenly being able to reach or climb to something “out of bounds”. But our children’s abilities are developing daily and we don’t want to discourage them. Remembering to say, “Wow, you can reach that now!” Or, “Look at the leaf you found,” before adding, “but this isn’t safe for you to touch (or put in your mouth). I’m going to move it”, encourages our baby to continue following his healthy instinct to explore.
Continuing the example of annoying vocalizations, that might mean saying to infants (who go through charming phases in which they experiment vocally), “You can make that loud crowing sound now! Wow, that’s ear-splitting!” And then you’ll probably just leave it at that, because if you say too much, or try to discourage a young infant’s enthusiastic noise-making, you might fuel the fire. Sometimes, we need the self-discipline to know when to hold our breath and bite our tongue.
I hope this helps.
I offer a complete guide to respectful discipline in my new book:
(Photo by Spigoo on Flickr)