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Loving Guidance for littlies

By Pinky McKay

You have given your baby a gentle beginning – you learned his cues and held him when he wanted to be close to you; you offered him milk from your breasts not only because it was the optimum infant food but also a tender expression of your love for your little one; You enjoyed the special moments of closeness as he fell asleep in your arms, or on your breast; You ignored the critics who cautioned, “you will ‘spoil’ him.” However, now the biddable baby in the bunny rug has become a toddler with attitude, you are wondering, have we created a discipline problem, after all?

There is so much confusion around the issue of discipline. And so much fear. Really, it is simple: the word discipline is derived from Latin – ‘to teach’. Almost certainly, by not responding to a baby’s cries, you will teach him not to cry. Almost certainly, you will also teach him there is no point reaching out to another human being - that he can’t make a difference (to his discomfort/-pain/ hunger/ thirst/ loneliness), so what is the use of trying. Consider, how many adults do you know who live their lives believing ‘what is the use – I can’t make a difference, anyway’? This is learned helplessness.

As children grow, discipline is often equated with punishment.  Almost certainly, smacking a child, giving him ‘time out’ or so-called ‘logical consequences’ will teach the child to stop undesirable behaviour – for now.  But ‘goodness’ achieved through punishment will only be superficial and temporary because it is based on threats and fear. Smacking a child is also likely to teach him that it is OK to lash out at others – especially if they are smaller and more vulnerable. Almost certainly, this ‘goodness’ will only last as long as the child is small enough to fear the adult who punishes him.

We can set up power struggles, even with babies – or we can teach our children real ‘goodness’ that lasts: responding to babies’ cues (cries are often late cues) and holding them is not ‘spoiling’ or ‘giving in’ (the language of the power struggle), but teaching them to love. This, in turn sets up a strong foundation for discipline that is intrinsic because it is based on trust and mutual respect.

If you are the parent of a toddler, your role as ‘teacher’ can be a challenge – at this stage you aren’t dealing with a potentially, reasonable, miniature adult. Toddlers have short attention spans, immature nervous systems (sensitive children may be easily overstimulated by exposure to background noise –ie television, or bright/ fluorescent  lighting – shopping centres can be overwhelming), emotional needs (that aren’t easy to articulate with a limited vocabulary) and a variety of physical needs (hunger; tiredness; possible food allergies or sensitivities to substances such as sugar, caffeine, chemicals etc), as well as insatiable curiosity (this is how they learn). These factors all affect their behaviour.

Toddlers (and older children) learn the limits by testing them. It is normal for toddlers to assert their developing independence by saying “no” or ‘escaping'. This doesn’t mean you will thwart their development by setting limits. In fact, now is the time to gently lay the foundations of discipline. 

Bearing in mind that discipline means ‘to teach’ (not punish), here are some tips to help you teach your toddler the finer points of 'good' behaviour:

·        Keep your expectations realistic. Toddlers don't understand concepts like 'hurry', 'tidy' and 'wait', and 'taking turns' or 'sharing' depend on developmental stages, not parental demands. Keep teaching, but be patient

·        Notice the good things. Toddlers like to please the people they love, and they love attention. Comment positively and give hugs when you notice good behaviour - and you will get more of it.

·        Acknowledge your child's feelings and teach him to label them. When children can express their feelings verbally and feel 'heard', they are less likely to lash out physically.

·        Children learn the rules more quickly when there aren't too many of them: The more you say "no" the less effective it becomes- and the more likely your tot is to say "no" to YOU! And if we keep changing our minds on the little ‘nos’ kids learn not to take us seriously on the big “NO!”.  Make the environment as safe as possible, so that "no" can be saved for things that REALLY matter and follow through: it is better to say, "yes" in the first place, than to change your mind for peace. Remember, “maybe” means “yes” to a toddler (and most of us too!).

·        Create a diversion -Divert your toddler from potentially harmful or dangerous situations by giving her something more acceptable to play with. For instance, if she fiddles with TV knobs, remove her from the vicinity and try offering her a torch to switch off and on. If she is fascinated with photos in frames – give her some photos of special people or pets in empty cassette cases. If she jumps on the sofa, provide an acceptable jumping place, such as an old mattress.

·        Limit choices. Offering choices helps your child to become a decision maker and enlists co-operation, but don't offer open-ended choices or your child will be confused, and make sure the options you offer suit YOU! Instead of asking, "what do you want to wear?" (unless you have made a badge that says, "I dressed myself!"), say, "would you like to wear your red shirt or your blue one?"

·        Think ahead. It is better to prevent trouble than react angrily later. For instance, if you ban ball throwing inside (and keep the balls outside) you don't have to yell when something precious gets broken.

·        Be flexible. Try and see things from your child's perspective. If your little one is engrossed in an activity, perhaps give him a bit longer to complete his game (or at least give him a few minutes advance notice) before you zip him off to go shopping, call him inside for dinner, or scoop him up for a bath, for instance.

·        Practise what you preach- if you expect good manners, use them yourself. If you expect children to pick up their toys, put your own things away. Children learn best by imitation - the good and the bad!

Pinky McKay is the author of Parenting By Heart and 100 Ways to Calm the Crying (Lothian). She offers Terrific Toddlers workshops in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. Contact Pinky through her website –   email: