Pop quiz: Your two-year-old rodeo star hops onto your German shepherd and tries to hang on for eight seconds. What do you do?
a) Freak out and yell, “Get off the doggy!”
b) Ignore it and let your kid “learn the hard way.”
c) Cheer and encourage your kid to beat her previous record.
d) Let your spouse deal with it.
Truth be told—regardless of the situation—you’ll probably try each of these reactions during the course of parenthood. Why? Because disciplining your toddler isn’t easy. Communication between you is still limited, and your toddler’s decision-making skills are still forming (read: terrible). Plus, all toddlers are different and might react to parenting strategies differently.
A lot of what you do will be a guess-and-check approach, but there are some things you can do no matter the disposition of the kid and the details of the situation. Here are four great, universal tips for disciplining your toddler.
1. Take Time-Outs Together
“Time-out with Daddy” in the Herbert household is not a punishment. It is a chance to calm down and learn. When our little girl is being difficult or stubborn, we do not let her “think about what she did” alone in her room or in a chair in the corner. Instead, I set her in my lap—usually with the lights off—and I talk to her. I tell her why her behavior was not acceptable (see number three below), and, more importantly, I let her be frustrated.
Every single punishment should have a reason behind it, which you should explain to your toddler in as much detail as you can.
I tell her I understand why she is frustrated. I tell her that I am not going to let her do <INSERT BEHAVIOR> because <INSERT REASON>. She needs to know that crying is not bad, expressing your feelings and frustrations isn’t punishable, she needs to feel heard, and she also needs to know that when she is frustrated, I will not abandon her.
2. Be Consistent
When you laugh at a certain behavior one day and go off the handle the next day in response to the same behavior, your young one will be confused. She will lose confidence in your ability to raise her (even if she can’t articulate it . . . or articulate the ABCs). Young kids are incredibly perceptive, and they absorb much more than we often think.
It’s also important that you remain consistent with your punishments—whatever they are. If you have more than one kid, it’s important you are consistent in your punishments between them (or have a good reason ready for why you aren’t).
And it is also important that you are consistent with your spouse. Discuss this with your husband or wife. The more united you two are when it comes to discipline, the better off everyone will be.
3. Always Explain
If you were assigned some really weird project at work and you questioned your boss about the merits of said project and your boss replied with, “Because I said so . . .,” how would you feel?
Every single punishment should have a reason behind it, which you should explain to your toddler in as much detail as you can. He’ll understand more than you think. Instead of, “Don’t hit your sister!” Say something like, “I am not going to let you hit your sister because it hurts her.”
When doing this, avoid using sarcasm or trying to use guilt as a way to motivate behavior. You want to be as matter of fact as possible. This is what happened, this is what we are going to do about it, and this is why.
4. Stay Calm
Another pop quiz: Your kid just grabbed your piping hot coffee out of your hands and it spilled onto your lap. Do you . . .
a) Scream in pain, and then scold your child?
b) Put on an Oscar-worthy acting performance and show no reaction?
Trick question! The real answer is c) You should never have put a piping hot mug of coffee within reach of your child in the first place.
What’s my point? You are the adult. Your kid is a kid. Kids do dumb things. They are still learning how the world works. Getting mad at a child when they do something stupid—especially when you could have prevented it as a parent—is like getting mad at water for running downhill.
Every time your little one behaves poorly, it is an opportunity for you to show just how much you love him.
You cannot reason with kids, and you cannot appeal to logic. Logic has nothing to do with it. They are going to be an emotional mess—fact. You need to be as even-keeled as a Vulcan. You need to be as emotional as a rock. Firm and steady, and confident and unmovable. It is your responsibility to rise above the situation and throw on your poker face—at all times.
Reacting to a strong emotional outburst with a strong emotional outburst does little in the way of preventing strong emotional outbursts in the future (in fact, it teaches your child that getting angry and yelling are normal responses to undesirable situations).
Remember: You are the adult. Try to act like it.
There were two pop quizzes mentioned in jest above, but your toddler is going to test you. She is going to test your patience and your resolve and your ability to stay cool and calm no matter what.
At times, you are probably going to fail these tests. You are going to make decisions that, in hindsight, you are ashamed of. But rest assured, you’ll get another opportunity (oh, you will!). You’ll get plenty more tests. And you can promise yourself you’ll do better next time. Just think of it like this: every time your little one behaves poorly, it is an opportunity for you to show just how much you love him.
And with that, I’ll leave you with one last pop quiz.
Fill in the blank. Parenting is ____________.
a) More difficult than herding feral cats.
b) The reason my hair has turned grey.
c) The most amazing, rewarding, life-giving experience I will ever have the good fortune of experiencing.
d) All of the above.
“Our children need to know that they are loved. Not because they are cute or because they did well in school, not because they did what we asked them, and not even because they are our children. They need to know that no matter what happens, they will always be loved.”
Building Better Families by Matthew Kelly