Your toddler reaches for the handle of the soup pan on the stove. Instead of shouting “no,” try “stop!” As soon as baby stops in her tracks, issue a quick follow-up—”hurt baby.” As you firmly grab her exploring hand (thinking next time you’ll keep the handle turned in and use the back burner), look into her amazed big eyes and continue your serious look: “Hot. Hurt. Don’t touch what’s on the stove. ouchie!” You’ve made your point without saying “no.” Follow-up with a hug, especially if you found yourself speaking harshly. Reconnect with your child so that one incident doesn’t ruin your child’s whole day. (“Hot” is another helpful stop word, especially once your child has some personal experience with the sensation. Carefully hold her hand where she can feel the heat so she understands the connection.)
As young parents with our first few children, we believed that spanking was appropriate in life- threatening situations, such as toddlers running out into the street. We reasoned it was necessary to make an impression on mind and body that the child would remember to prevent running into the street again. At the time we concluded that safety comes before psychology. But as we learned more about discipline, we realized there are better ways than spanking to handle even danger discipline. We realized toddlers don’t remember from one time to the next, even with the “physical impression.” Here’s what worked for us:
When our toddler was in the driveway, Martha watched him like a hawk. If he ventured too close to the street, she put on her best tirade, “Stop!! Street!!” and she grabbed him from the gutter and carried on and on, vocalizing her fear of his being in the street. She was not yelling at him or acting angry. She was expressing genuine fear, giving voice to that inner alarm that goes off in every mother’s heart when her child could be hurt. It was very important that he believe her, so she didn’t hold back. And it worked! He acquired a deep respect for the street and always looked for permission, knowing that Mom would take his hand and they would cross together. A few times Martha had to reinforce this healthy fear by issuing a loud warning sound. She saves this sound for times when an immediate response is needed for safety. This sound is hard to describe in writing, but it is a very sharp, forceful, “Ahhh!” once she had to use it from a distance of about 100 ft. at a park where Stephen wandered off and was about to step into the street. To her intense relief, he stopped in his tracks and looked back at her, giving her time to get to him. She never uses it casually, and doesn’t use it often. Day-to-day, moment-by-moment situations need to be handled more normally.
Any “danger” situation still requires constant adult supervision—no amount of spanking will danger-proof a child when the adult is not there to administer the blows. Any after-the-fact hitting will just be confusing—he won’t know why he’s being hit. Your job as a disciplinarian is to keep your child away from situations in which his ignorance or impulsiveness could get him into real danger.
Our four-year-old Stephen was headed for the street. I immediately ran to his side and began our danger- preventing tirade. Then we played the rewind game. Ten times we reenacted the scene. We ran toward the street, stopped at the curb, looked both ways: “Look this way, no car; look that way, no car, and then we walk across the street to your friend’s house.” By graphic repetition, I hoped to imprint in Stephen’s mind the habit of as soon as he approaches the curb he automatically looks both ways for cars and then crosses the street. Eight-year- old Matthew was running on a slick, wet sidewalk and slipped and fell. I used “rewind” to prevent this accident from occurring again. We both ran toward the puddle, stopped, walked around it, and then carried on, replaying this scene ten times. By using “rewind,” you provide your child with a script for when the same situation later arises.