How to Teach a Child to Behave
What is the best way to discipline a 14-month-old? I try redirecting behavior with our son, but it usually doesn’t work.
Knowing Your Child
Since the word “discipline” means “to teach”, it helps to see discipline strategies in the context of teaching. Disciplining can feel like a full-time job for parents of toddlers and young preschoolers. It seems every minute of every day they are learning, experimenting, failing, and learning from failing. So, when it comes to behavior, we parents help our children by literally giving them the tools to succeed in life.
Young ones, starting as early as your 14-month-old, are either more or less open to being taught. It depends on their individual temperaments and even the match or mismatch with Mom’s and Dad’s temperament. A laid-back mother and a toddler who wants to challenge all her directions and limits is an example of what might be perceived as a “mismatch”. This is where attachment parenting shines. The key to knowing your child, knowing what makes him tick, is the groundwork you lay from the very beginning. You learn to “read your child” when you foster the connection you have by the concepts of Attachment Parenting: Birth Bonding, Breastfeeding, Baby-wearing, Being Sensitive to Cries, Bedding Close to Baby. The payoff is that by the time your child is a toddler you can be ahead of the game.
Strategy 1: Change Your Perspective
Toddlers tend to be impulsive – your goal is to direct those impulses into appropriate and pleasing behaviors. The biggest tip we learned in parenting our eight is: Get behind the eyes of your toddler. An experienced mother will do this intuitively. I learned to handle temper tantrums, for example, by getting down to my child’s eye level and talking slowly and simply, using words I could imagine myself wanting to hear if I were the child. Another example: If redirecting your child into a safer or more appropriate action isn’t working, consider what it is about that unsafe action that has his attention and then spend a little time exploring or showing your child more rather than whisking him away. One trick I learned when I didn’t have that much time was to say “bye-bye” to the attraction, so you can validate his interest and help him move on.
Toddlers can push a parent’s anger buttons, especially in those moments when you are pressed for time. It can be maddening! And your toddler will learn a lot from how you respond. By asking yourself “How would I want my mother to react?”, you will avoid acting impulsively yourself. You will be pleasantly surprised by how appropriately you respond. Once you get in the habit of thinking and parenting this way, it will enable appropriate behavior as your child grows through the next stages.
Strategy 2: Teach Appropriate Behavior
Another strategy is to teach your child the kind of behavior you expect from him. Let him know there are acceptable ways to behave, for example, gentle touches rather than rough when it comes to the family pet or the new sibling. And “You may not play with the dinner knife or fork, but you can play with the spoon”. Distract and substitute usually works if you do it politely. I had to remind myself not to grab things from my toddler’s hands if I wanted him to not grab from playmates. Another phrase that comes in handy is, instead of saying “No!” try calmly saying, “That’s not for Johnny”. That will mean you are giving him a reason he can’t have it – it is simply not for him.
Our book, The Discipline Book: Everything You Need to Know to Have a Better-Behaved Child – From Birth to Age Ten, has many more ideas and insights you will appreciate. Learning more about yourself as a parent and understanding what your child needs in this area of discipline is extremely rewarding. I often think to myself how much I have grown as a person by virtue of how much I have grown as a parent. It is time well spent to learn how to be the best “teacher” as you learn the ropes of discipline.
Written by: Martha Sears, RN
Martha is the mother of Dr. Bill’s eight children, a registered nurse, a former childbirth educator, a La Leche League leader, and a lactation consultant. Martha is the co-author of 25 parenting books and is a popular lecturer and media guest drawing on her 18 years of breastfeeding experience with her eight children (including Stephen with Down Syndrome and Lauren, her adopted daughter). Martha speaks frequently at national parenting conferences and is noted for her advice on how to handle the most common problems facing today’s mothers with their changing lifestyles. Martha is able to connect with both full-time, stay-at-home mothers and working mothers because she herself has experienced both styles of parenting. Martha takes great pride in referring to herself as a “professional mother” and one of her favorite quips when someone voices their concern about her having eight children in an already populated world is: “The world needs my children.”