Discipling a child, especially challenging one, can bring out the best and worst in us as parents. It’s hard not to get frustrated when your infant keeps throwing his food — or hitting his brother — after being asked many times to stop. But it can also make us better parents. That’s because discipline begins with trust. The child who trusts his mom or dad to give him food and comfort when he needs it will also trust them when they say, “Don’t touch!” And that’s also why, for children under age 2, discipline is less about time-outs and punishments than it is about building your child’s faith in you. For me, that means responding to his cries, “wearing” him in a sling or carrier, and spending lots of cuddle time together.
Of course, if it were as simple as that, you wouldn’t be reading this article. Even the most connected parents and babies have their trying moments. But understanding a behavior from your child’s perspective will help you react appropriately to guide her behavior. On one occasion, our then-toddler, Lauren, impulsively grabbed a carton of milk out of the refrigerator, dropped it on the floor and burst into howls. Instead of scolding her or being angry about the mess, my wife, Martha, talked to Lauren calmly and sensitively about what had happened. When I asked her how she managed to handle the situation so calmly, Martha said, “I asked myself, ‘If I were Lauren, how would I want my mother to respond?'”
Sometimes, getting out of yourself and into your child saves mental strain. So the next time your tot does something that frazzles your last nerve, remind yourself of my discipline mantra: Get behind the eyes of your baby. When you do that, you’ll (almost!) always get it right.
At a loss for how to deal with specific frustrating situations? After eight kids and more than 40 years as a practicing pediatrician, I’ve learned a few discipline tactics.
Touching or Grabbing Dangerous Stuff
Why they do it Curious tots are always looking for things to pull, push, grab, drop and throw, whether it’s your cell phone or the hot oven door. Exploring the world through touching and mouthing is the way babies learn.
How to react: Instead of the incessant “No, no, no!” (which just plants those words into your baby’s budding vocabulary), give a personal “Not for Bobby…” When trying to distract and divert 14-month-old Lauren from danger or mischief, we’d call out, “Lauren!” Hearing her name took her by surprise and caused her to momentarily forget her quest. Once we had her attention, we’d quickly redirect her interest before she got into trouble.
Give your young explorer word associations to help him sort out what he may and may not touch. Say “yes touch” for safe things, “no touch” for dangerous items, and “soft touch,” “pet” and “pat” for faces and animals. To tame the impulsive grabber, try encouraging the “one-finger touch.” For hot kitchen objects, fireplaces and the like, try “hot touch” or “owie touch.” (And of course, keep pots cooking on the back burners and other appliances out of reach.)
It’s not only important to show your baby what is off limits, but to show her what is hers at the same time. For example, if you’re in the kitchen chopping veggies with your knife and your 20-month-old is so fascinated that she tries to join the fun, say: “Not for Morgan. This is Mommy’s knife. Here is Morgan’s spoon.” This technique is called substitute and redirect, which you probably already do instinctively, offering her a replacement toy when you take away something she can’t have. So suppose she grabs a breakable vase. Instead of snapping, “Don’t grab!” as you snatch the vase away, which is bound to trigger an angry protest, say, “Not for Erin,” as you take the vase from one hand while putting a toy in the other.
Deliberately Spilling Food or Throwing Cups/Utensils From the High Chair
Why they do it Your baby is learning what she can do with her hands, and she’s also discovering what a marvelous phenomenon gravity is. Besides, it gets a reaction from all those around the dinner table who might not otherwise be tuned into her.
How to react: Depending on your time and energy, you can simply go with the flow and play the drop-and-pick-up game until either you or your baby gets bored, or you can eventually just leave the dropped food or item on the floor to convey to your baby the game is over. When there is no one to play with, your baby will soon change the game.
It’s important to remember that your baby is not rejecting the food that you made or trying to be defiant. She simply wants to play and interact with you. If you don’t want to play fetch with the sippy cup, get her out of the high chair and play with real toys. Even a couple minutes of fun will get your child to the point where she is ready to sit and eat. Or leave the sippy cup on the floor where she threw it and say, “Bye-bye, cup.” Then, sit facing your baby and eat your own food the way you want her to eat hers. Keep it fun and interactive, and your baby will eventually follow your lead.
Biting and/or Hitting
Why they do it Your baby has not yet developed the words to convey his emotions, so he uses the tools he has: his mouth and hands. He’ll use these tools to experiment on familiar (and available) people: his parents, siblings, babysitter or day-care provider. But these early nips and smacks are also often playful communications and not, in psychological jargon, “aggressive tendencies.”
How to react: Since your baby’s hits are most likely not malicious, but rather misdirected gestures of affection or frustration, avoid the temptation to yell. Play show-and-tell instead. Demonstrate how you “pet” and “be gentle” with your hand. Say, “We kiss your brother,” “We pet the doggy,” or “We hug our friend.” If he’s lashing out due to frustration, help him with whatever it was he was trying to do, and verbalize his anger: “When you can’t do it, you get mad.” He may not understand the words yet, but he’ll get your tone and adapt to your good example.
Screaming and Yelling
Why they do it Babies are amazed at the shock-power of their little voices. Imagine a tiny baby getting a room full of adults to stop and stare — that’s power!
How to react: As a survivor of the screech-and-scream stage, my ears are still ringing. We muted our little screamer, Matthew, by making a house rule: “Matthew, only scream on the grass!” When his scream was about to erupt, we would usher him outside, and into the wind his screeches went. If weather and circumstances didn’t permit the outdoor vocal release, and Matthew was in a mellow mood, we resorted to: “Give Daddy your nice voice…” Once your loudmouth has the words to express her needs, that “nice voice” you long for will soon appear. If outdoors is not appropriate for your home or season, establish a screaming room. Later on, call it the whining room when your tyke is begging you for “just one more” cookie.
Putting Up a Fight When You Try to Dress Her
Why they do it Diaper changes and dressing time are tailor-made for conflict. Her agenda doesn’t match ours. She’s too interested in body parts, for example, to want a diaper put on, or quite unhappy with how her tender ears feel when the dreaded neck hole gets caught.
How to react: Turn these activities into a game: Try hide-and-seek, asking, “Where’s Lucy’s hand?” as you put her arm in a sleeve and then say, “There it is!” when her hand emerges. Or sing the hokey-pokey song: “Put your right foot in… put your left foot in… shake them all about…” She may look forward to getting dressed. If she still fusses, choose clothes you can slip easily onto a moving target — one size up, perhaps, with minimal buttons and snaps. As she nears age 2, she may want to choose her own clothing, and letting her pick between, say, two shirts, may give her the autonomy she craves.
More from the August issue of Babytalk: