Hint: It’s okay to say no.
In my experience as a child psychologist, preschool teacher and mama, I can tell you firsthand: A few preemptive discipline techniques can save you and your child from less-than-pleasant forms of punishment down the road. It's true that all children should have inalienable rights to their own thoughts and feelings, a sense of security and a safe space to learn and live (just like adults do!). Of course, the moment a child begins to impinge on the rights of others (or themselves), discipline is needed to teach the child about the importance of these universal rights.
So how can a parent provide effective discipline for their child while protecting these rights? By serving up just as much warmth as they do discipline.
Holding high standards for our children while simultaneously showing warmth and responsiveness to their needs is commonly known as authoritative parenting. Research indicates that authoritative parenting is related to positive social and academic outcomes for children. Plus, it is related to fewer problem behaviors, such as aggression and hyperactivity.
Before you pull out your hair over your babe's latest exploit, here are 8 authoritative strategies for setting clear boundaries while providing the warmth and flexibility your child needs to thrive.
1. To reward or punish, that is the question.
By disciplining your child, you are teaching the practice of living by an acceptable code of behavior. Discipline does not always involve punishment. In fact, rewards for good behavior offer a distinct advantage over punishments for bad behavior. Simply put, a reward tells your babe what he should do, but a punishment doesn't give an acceptable alternative to what he should not do.
Let's say your little one decides to give a few gentle cuddles to the family cat. If you praise baby's humane efforts, this sweet behavior is likely to continue. But if your little darling chooses, instead, to pull the cat's tail and you punish him, there's still no suggestion for what he might do instead.
So, what's a mama to do? Take your little one's hand, help him stroke the cat gently, and congratulate his newfound sensitivity.
2. Take preventative measures.
One of the biggest sources of discord with a young child is curiosity (and a desire to get into everything). Unfortunately, baby's physical abilities and sense of adventure are miles ahead of his judiciousness.
Minimize conflict by making baby's space safe and welcoming. Of course, it's not possible to baby-proof everything, so pick a few house rules that are most important for keeping baby(and your sanity) out of harm's way.
It's OK to say no when a situation calls for it.
My tiny tot is not allowed near the stove when it is in use, and I am not afraid to tell him so. But because I use no prudently, my babe takes it seriously.
3. Pick your battles.
My son used to look me straight in the eye during mealtimes, say "uh oh," and then toss unwanted food on the floor, all followed by a mischievous smile. For weeks I would fume at this behavior.
Of course, baby thought my (over)reaction was hilarious and continued chucking food overboard.
One day I decided to simply ignore his antics. That was the last time he bothered with his amusing exploit. It simply wasn't fun if he wasn't getting my goat.
Moral of the story? Keep calm and carry on, mamas.
4. Consistency is key.
Children need structure and reliability—even when it comes to discipline. When we follow through with promised consequences, our children are more likely to abide by rules in the future.
By giving in to bad behavior, we are sending a message that the behavior is acceptable.
The next time your tot throws a tantrum? Instead of bending to his (very loud) demands, simply say, "I'm sorry, but that's not how you get what you want. If you want something, I'd like to see you ask calmly." Ignore the remainder of the fit and it will cease quickly.
It may be easier to give in to a tantrum to end bad behavior in that moment, but research shows that focusing on long-term behavioral outcomes should take precedent.
5. Enlighten your youngster.
It's okay to have high standards for your child,as long as you can explain your reasoning. Children who are offered explanations by their parents are less likely to engage in problem behaviors.
Even if your child is a bit too young to understand your logic, it is never too early to start making good habits. It won't be long before your child understands your reasoning perfectly—even if he pretends not to understand a word of it.
The next time your tot breaks a house rule, explain why that behavior is not acceptable. "We don't play with electrical outlets because they are dangerous and could hurt you."
6. This time, Mama means it.
Your kiddo is smarter than you know. If you consistently give your child two or three chances to stop a bad behavior before implementing a consequence, he will quickly learn that he has two or three more (helpful) warnings before he actually needs to stop.
Based on the discipline philosophy of Love and Logic (one of our favorites), the next time your child knowingly breaks a house rule, let him know that any more of that behavior will have a consequence. If it happens again, enforce the consequence as soon as possible.
7. Natural consequences.
If your child is anything like mine, it won't belong before he learns how to open and close drawers. You may warn your child to be careful with those tiny fingers, but it is only a matter of time before those delicate digits find themselves stuck. Nothing will teach baby how to respect those drawers like a natural consequence—the inevitable result of a child's actions.
As long as baby is not in danger, natural consequences can be an effective tool for teaching your tot—without lifting a finger!
8. Time for a time-out.
Although they should be used sparingly, time-outs can be highly effective if implemented appropriately. The AAP recommends introducing time-outs at one year, with one minute for each year of the child's age.
If baby leaves before time is up, you can return him to the time-out spot or sit with him for the remainder of the time-out.
Keep discussion to a minimum: "I am holding you here because you are in time-out. You are in time-out because you bit Daddy. I won't let you bite people because it hurts."
Once baby serves his time, engage him in a new activity and offer comfort if needed.
Alternatively, if there is a particular object that baby is using to make trouble, such as a misused toy, put the object in "time-out" for a few minutes.
We know how challenging it can be to keep your cool as your tot grows older, wiser, and feistier. The good news is, you will have plenty of opportunities to perfect the discipline strategies that will work for you and your child. We wish you luck (and patience!) in baby's lively second year.