How to Discipline a Child

So you want to know when it is ok to begin disciplining your misbehaving munchkin? Discipline in its simplest forms can start as soon as 8 months of age. You will know it is time when your once powerless little baby repeatedly slaps your face or pulls off your glasses…and laughs hysterically.

The Happiest Toddler philosophy on discipline is different from what you will get from other parenting schools of thought. It all starts with thinking of yourself as your child’s ambassador. Your job is to help your uncivilised toddler understand what good and bad behaviour means for your family. To do that, you want to master 3 key skills the world’s best diplomats all use:

  • Communicating with respect (to avoid ruining the relationship and accidentally offending their host)
  • Speaking their language (with little kids, speak toddler-ese—use simple words and short phrases they understand)
  • Do not be a pushover (In a serious conflict, an ambassador puts his foot down…and so should you!)

Discipline Your Child By Setting Boundaries

Think of setting boundaries as a way to support your child: You are building guardrails to guide her down the path of life. Because you want her to succeed, your limits must be reasonable, and your rules should focus on behaviour that needs to stop immediately. If you are consistent, your toddler will soon go along with your demands.

Discipline Your Child to Teach Right from Wrong

I recommend using all the techniques in The Happiest Toddler on the Block to guide your child to good behaviour. These methods include creating routines, using distraction and compromise, as well as my favourite little tricks—time-ins, gossiping, playing the boob, and more. When it comes to discipline, you will want to pick your battles.

Age-Appropriate Child Discipline Techniques

I suggest reserving punishment for what I call red-light behaviour. That is when your child breaks the rules you have decided you will not compromise on—when she is doing something dangerous (running into the street), acting aggressive (hitting, biting, being cruel) or breaking an important family rule (no drawing on the walls). For such scenarios, the 3 methods below are very effective with older babies and toddlers:

Kind Ignoring

Age: 8 months+

When to use it: In drama queen scenarios, e.g., when your child’s tears keep flowing because she has an audience, or when he continues a stubborn protest just because you are watching.

Short explanation: Ignoring toddlers is absolutely a form of punishment—what they crave the most in life is your attention. With that said, you will want to be sure you to ignore them kindly. To do that, first, connect with respect (discussed at length in the book) by acknowledging your child’s feelings even though your message will be “no.” (Stop! No grabbing glasses.) Then walk to the other side of the room (or even sit nearby) but do not look at her. Act busy (not mad, just disinterested) for 20 seconds or so. As soon as she stops breaking the rule, return with loving attention. Then offer your explanation, reassurance, etc.

The Time-Out

Age: 1 year+

When to use it: When you need your child to learn that he must stop when you say, “Stop.” Toddlerhood is the most dangerous period of childhood, and you need him to listen to your warnings.

How to Do It: Give one last warning and again, connect with respect. Ask your child if they want a time-out for continuing X behaviour. (You want your child to learn a time-out is something he is doing to himself, not something you do to him. He always has a choice!) Then only go on to give the time out if he does not stop. Calmly lead him to “the time-out place” (a chair or a corner to start) and say, “You are on a time-out for X minutes so you can get calm again.” (Do not worry about making an 8-month-old or young toddler stay put. In the beginning, you just want them to understand that ignoring rules will lead to a moment of isolation. For older kids, you will want to set a timer and you may need to confine them to a playpen or their room). As a general rule, a time-out should last one minute per year of age. When time is up (and the fit is over), ask if he is calm and ready to come back…

I advise NOT talking about the time-out/his behaviour for at least a half hour. Right afterward, you want to reconnect with him and forgive—another skill you want to teach him! Later in the day, you can revisit what happened, use my gossiping technique, or even create your own bedtime story to reinforce your message.

Giving a “Fine”

Age: 2 years+. Especially good for toddlers 3+

When to use it: If your child repeatedly breaks an important rule.

How it works: Simple! Take away an object or a privilege. For example, if your toddler hits a friend with a toy bat, take away the bat and end the play date. Say, “No hitting. No bat when you hit. Now we go home.” This is a great way to get your child to stop hitting others. 

How NOT to Discipline a Child: Spanking

Hitting children teaches them that it is okay for big people to hit little people, and that it is okay to vent anger through violence. Now, I know there will be times when your toddler will make you really angry, but learning toddler-ese can give you an outlet for your frustration: Vent your anger by clapping and growling, not by shaking, slapping, hitting, or spanking.

Learn more about all the techniques in this article (plus tons of troubleshooting tips for when you are thrown for a loop) in The Happiest Toddler on the Block

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