Alright, alright, let's get down to some concrete suggestions for some discipline practices that work for the younger ages. I've pulled these methods from various sources including some fabulous books (that I will list in a separate post with lots of link-love), parenting programs (both intervention and prevention programs), and wise parents around me. To be clear: I have not come up with any of these methods on my own. And when I say these methods "work," keep in mind that what I really mean is: that they work for some kids, some families, some of the time at some ages and not others. I will also clearly state that all the strategies that I advocate are non-aggressive and generally non-physical. Especially with the under 3 or so group, I'm throwing out this caveat because many parents advocate spanking (at least as a last resort) in the toddler/pre-verbal stage. When I get the strength and the time, I will finish the post I've been working on that addresses spanking, but that's for another time (in the meantime, you can go join this thoughtful discussion on the topic).
I wanted to cover some of the most successful methods for the under 2 years old group first. This is the age at which children are very limited in their verbal abilities, so they often get very frustrated because they can't communicate to us what they really want. I'd say the vast majority of behavioural issues emerge at this young age because children feel misunderstood, ignored, or just plain frustrated that they can't get you to UNDERSTAND what they want. Their RECEPTIVE language, however (especially after 12 – 18 months) is quite good. So they may UNDERSTAND you, but they just can't COMMUNICATE with you. Can you IMAGINE how infuriating and frustrating that could be?
Another caveat before we get to the list: I think of discipline episodes as two-sided. The first is the emotional component: All parent-child conflicts are emotional and offer opportunities for parents to learn about their children's inner lives and to also teach their children some important lessons. We want to teach our children to understand and regulate their emotions while also being able to communicate what they feel to others in effective ways. Conflicts of will that often involve applying some discipline strategy provide the most common context through which we can do this type of emotional learning and teaching with our children. The second component to discipline episodes is the behavioural one: we want to teach our children to behave appropriately, safely, with kindness and so on. Following many, many wise authors (again, links to books are coming in a future post), I think we need to acknowledge and accept children's emotions and allow them to feel them without fear of reprisal while still teaching them appropriate ways of ACTING on those emotions. I'm going to focus on the behaviours in this post and talk more about emotions and how to label and work with them in another post.
Here are some of the top strategies that could work for you and your young children. Keep in mind that some of these methods could work brilliantly at older ages too, while others may be less appropriate. Also, you'll note that these methods are ways to AVOID a power struggle. My aim (in theory, unfortunately not always in practice) is NOT to "show my kids who's boss" but to gain their compliance and teach them new skills through other means.
1. I maintain that one of the most effective strategies for avoiding coercive cycles or nasty discipline episodes is to ANTICIPATE the most commonly-occuring conflicts and find ways of AVOIDING them.
2. Children under 2 can often be easily distracted. So, if a 9-month old is spitting his food all over the floor, read him a book/sing him a song/rattle a funny toy and see if his attention is diverted. If your 18-month old insists on pulling the cat's tail, start playing tug-of-war with him with your scarf instead. And so on…
3. Teach your pre-verbal child sign language. (This is kind of in the middle of the emotion/behaviour split). The link I provided (and there are tons more; go ask Dr. Google) allows you to put in all sorts of words and watch as an overly-smiley lovely young woman shows you the sign for said word. Personally, I don't really think you need to spend the money on a DVD or book, not at first anyway. Ten simple words will do at first (even less: milk, sleep, all done, MORE, banana, etc.). Babies as young as 6 – 9 months will eventually GET that the word is the same as the gesture, but most babies won't actually start USING the signs until about 1 years old or more. For those of you uninitiated, you'll be tempted to scoff. Beware the baby sign-language scoff lest you miss something that will SO WORK for you. Giving your 1-year old the ability to communicate to you that "NO MOMMY! You have it all wrong… I want MILK, not water/a hug/my soother!" or "NO! Don't take that away, I want MORE!" can be priceless. For SO MANY children who do not have the ability to talk yet, a few simple signs can be the key to avoiding innumerable tantrums and, just as precious, the key to connecting with your child in a way that you never realized was possible at such an early age. Baby sign-language: Not just for the granola-hippie-hemp-eating mommies anymore (mmmm… granola!).
4.ATTEND like mad to positive behaviours you want to encourage and try to ignore or at least respond in a flat emotional tone to behaviours you want to discourage. (Again, this stuff comes straight out of the behavioural techniques of Skinner and those whacky pigeons he taught to press bars for food.) This is SO IMPORTANT to remember: Your attention is like crack to your baby/toddler. The number one thing your child craves is your attention, preferably your smiling, adoring attention. You can use that beam of attention to tune your child's behaviour — when she is doing stuff you want her to do, or just being an adorable, sweet child, praise the hell out of her, smile gloriously, do a little dance, throw a mini party. When she is doing something you would like her to stop doing (that is nevertheless not harming her or anyone / anything else), withdraw your attention: in response to the slamming doors, throwing food, screeching at pitches only young dogs and mothers can hear, walk into another room or pick up a book to read or start lavishing loving attention on her sibling instead. As SOON as she stops the yucky behaviour and does something more to your liking, start the happy dance, pick her up and mush her sweet little cheeks into yours, smile and clap and generally go over the top. I know… sounds ridiculous. But it is UNCANNY how well this can work if you can keep your cool and keep your eye on the goal: you want to simply stop or redirect the behaviour, NOT let her know that you won some battle of wills.
5. Focus your requests on what you DO want your child to do, not what you DON'T want him to do. Babies and toddlers have miserable shor
t-term memories so they'll remember the LAST thing you've said in most cases. If you tell Johnny: "Don't bang the glass table. Banging the glass table will break it," he will likely hear, "wah, wha, wah, bang the glass table, break it." Instead, focus on an alternative behaviour you would prefer him to do: "Don't bang the glass table. You CAN bang this drum. Come on, bang this drum with me!" Also, they may not KNOW an alternative behaviour that would be alright for you and still feel fun for them; kids need us to TELL them and SHOW them what we're ok with.
6. Related to #5, when our child DOES misbehave (for example, hits another child or grabs a toy from another child's hand), teach him the more APPROPRIATE behaviour once the situation has been diffused and PROVIDE HIM THE OPPORTUNITY TO PRACTICE that more appropriate behaviour. Oftentimes we reprimand our children for doing something wrong (for example, we give them a time-out), but then that's the end of that. Most often, we don't give them the chance to practice the more appropriate behaviours we hope they'll use next time (using their "strong" words, sharing, asking instead of grabbing for a toy). This "do-over" is ESSENTIAL for giving children the skills to deal with situations differently the next time they arise. I've heard this idea from several sources, but I'm a big fan of Sharon Silver at ProActive Parenting, who emphasizes how powerful these learning experiences can be for children.
OK, having written another novella, I'll stop now and give you a chance… What have I missed? What works or worked best for your toddler?