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Ask the Expert: When Should Parents Start ‘Teaching’ Discipline?

A recent ‘Ask the Expert’ question to The Goddard School Blog reads, ‘Everyone at our house knows that ‘discipline by distraction’ works well for very young children. At what point should we start  actively teaching boundaries and appropriate behavior? Is 20 months too late to start the process? At what age can that kind of gentle discipline start to become effective?’

All children–and parents–are unique, so I have no clue what age would be best for any particular child-parent pair to start a system of discipline. All I can discuss are ranges when developmental agendas are unfolding and try to give you some heads-ups.

Between 18-36 months, so much happens developmentally that it’s easy to lose sight of the objective. The long-term goal here is cultivating self-control in the child, not parental control of the child. Through your words and your own behavior during this period, you are teaching the basics of judgment and control that will work not only when you are present, but hopefully when you are not, as in those teen years.

Before shame and guilt show up, discipline by distraction is your best hope.  Shame and guilt are critical partners in disciplining children and they develop late in the second year for most kids.  Shame arises when a toddler gets an unexpected, negative reaction to something he/she has done from someone he/she loves. He/she feels instantly deflated and may or may not blush, but he/she clearly registers a negative physical reaction to this interaction. This reaction doesn’t exist earlier because the brain has only just now developed the complex connections between words, behavior and emotions.

What you do next will help the child learn over time that his negative behavior violates your important standards for his well-being, and that there are ways to avoid guilt, which is the primary consequence of shame and hurts just as much. Therefore, once that shame reaction starts, it’s worth adding a firm but simple “No, we don’t jump on the coffee table.” The toddler’s increasing memory skills are sometimes  helping him to remember that even when the coffee table leap looks like fun, the grown-ups don’t like that behavior.

Your consistent, firm,  low-key and brief repetition of the same words and actions in response to his dangerous or uncooperative behavior enable your child to begin to feel emotional distress (shame and guilt) when he breaks those rules. His desire to please you is something to rely on, but not to manipulate. After about18 months of this kind of interaction, your child will show the beginning of a sense of right and wrong. Voila! A conscience starts to emerge just in the nick of time (about pre-K).

Our kids aren’t the only ones feeling shame and guilt. How we manage those emotions in ourselves is related to our own personal character and temperament. Periodically reassess the fit between you and your child’s temperamental styles enough to stay in sync so that you don’t feel you are ‘constantly battling.’ Laid-back kids are often confused by feisty caretakers, just as shy parents are flustered by feisty kids. One solution is to do more tag-teaming with the parent or grandparent that seems to be less ‘undone’ by the challenging behavior during this stage. Now you know why there are quotes around ‘teaching’ in the title.  Remember, it DOES get better.

Additional guidance is from Chapter 8 of Dr. Pruett’s Me, Myself and I: How Children Build Their Sense of Self: 18-36 Months, Goddard Press.