When I started my journey towards gentle parenting, I did a lot of thinking and researching about spankings, time outs, punishments, rewards, and more. I decided I didn’t want to use any of those common tools to discipline my kids, but I didn’t know what new tools to use instead. This was such a new mindset to me and I wanted someone to tell me what to do and give me examples of how to apply the information practically. I’m writing this series as a list of tools to help you feel more confident about gentle discipline.
The neat thing about not using any punishments at all is that this discipline method can be used from a very young age. You don’t have to worry about if your child is old enough. Communication can start the moment your baby is born. Another amazing benefit of gentle discipline is that you will be treating your child in a way that is completely acceptable for them to emulate. They will learn to speak to you and their siblings kindly and calmly and work to find compromises. This is far different from the model of spanking which you wouldn’t want your toddler to do to his baby brother.
Discipline and Boundaries
Discipline doesn’t have to mean punishment. To me, it means to teach and to guide. Discipline without spanking does not mean there are no boundaries or that the kids run the house. Boundaries are extremely important for children’s healthy development and safety. I do try to keep rules to a minimum though. If I can put away breakable/valuable items and put child locks on cabinets that hold chemicals, I will make my life (and my kid’s life) much easier. They are learning so much already without extra and unnecessary rules. Make your home a place where they can explore safely and freely. Save your boundaries for bigger issues. Being buckled up during car rides is not negotiable. You can’t let your child hurt other people. You wouldn’t let her color all over the walls. These are all good rules and they are easy to teach and enforce with toddlers.
Now I will name some boundaries to avoid making. Make no rules against crying and screaming. Unless you want to use duct tape (please don’t!), you can’t force your child to stop crying or screaming. And it’s completely healthy for toddlers to express their feelings this way. Don’t try to stop them. I’ll come back to this topic in part 2. Don’t ask them to sit still for too long. Whenever possible let them be toddlers! They want to play and move and explore. Give them plenty of opportunities to be free. Your boundaries should reflect realistic expectations. I’m not going to require my toddlers to be seen and not heard or to act as miniature adults. I will make rules that they can easily follow so they can develop self-control gradually and not feel discouraged.
A little bit of understanding towards your child and yourself can go a long way. All behavior is communication. Try to put to rest your own fears and assumptions that your child’s “bad behavior” means that you are a bad parent or that your child will become a criminal. Instead, focus on what needs or frustrations your toddler might be trying to communicate to you.
Your first discipline tool is communication. Even babies can be told what they can and can’t do and a simple explanation.
Keep explanations very brief. “This is not safe.” “The oven is very hot.” “Hitting hurts.” These are all great simple explanations.
Babies and toddlers can also be told what will happen next so they can make transitions easier. Who would want to be abruptly taken to the next activity without any warning? Keep your voice soft but confident. No need to yell or be mean, but also make sure your instructions are not sounding like questions. You want to be clear. This is what simple communication can look like:
“I won’t let you hit me” calmly with confidence as you stop their hand. “Gentle” as you show them how to stroke or pat gently.
Toddler finds a dangerous object. “This is not safe for you. I’m going to put it away.” Or “let’s put it away together” depending on what it is.
Toddler is enjoying the park. “You can slide down the slide one more time and then it will be time to go home.”
Always be prepared to tell them AND show them what you need them to do. It’s completely age appropriate for them to not obey you right away. They are trying to figure out what will happen if they don’t listen. Will you yell? Or will you help them obey? They need to know you are in control of yourself and that you will keep them safe. After your toddler slides down that last time, she might try to do it again. Be prepared to gently take her by the hand or pick her up and reiterate what’s happening. “Let’s go to the car now.” Don’t take it personally. No need to punish her. Just be the strong and calm adult she can depend on to follow through.
Tell them what they CAN do whenever possible instead of saying “don’t” and “no”. This can also be called redirrection.
Instead of saying, “don’t color on the wall” say “color on the paper”. Instead of “don’t splash water on me” say “keep the water in the tub”. You want their brains to be focused on what they should do instead of what they can’t.
Another excellent discipline tool for toddlers is offering them choices. Around the age of two, toddlers love being able to do things themselves. Use this to your advantage!
“I can’t let you stand on the table. Would you like me to help you get down or can you do it all by yourself?” And if they don’t move a muscle, just kindly help them down.
I am shocked at how effective this is sometimes. If you are creative, you can come up with two acceptable choices for just about any situation.
“It’s bath time now! Would you like to stomp to the bathroom like an elephant or hop to the bathroom like a bunny?”
Giving choices lets them have some say over what happens and makes them feel empowered to make good choices.
Consistently follow through with your boundaries. This helps young children learn the boundaries quickly. If you are consistent, they won’t have to wonder if you will stop them or not. Many times you will have to physically stop your child to help them follow the rules. They often don’t know why they are doing what they are doing. It’s impulsive behavior and they need you to be in control for them.
The only thing off limits in our back yard is my above the ground garden. My 14 month old wants to play in that dirt so badly. I’ve had to repeatedly move him away from it physically. “Jeremy, you can’t play in the garden, but you can play over here with this dirt, this ball, or you can slide.” And if he kept playing in the dirt I would gently turn his body and help him walk somewhere else. This has happened MANY times, but he is starting to get it! He is starting to have more self control. The other day he was standing right by the garden and I started talking to him and telling him he couldn’t play in the garden. I gave him some ideas of what he could play with instead. And he just stood there and listened to me and stared at me for a while. He didn’t touch the dirt. He didn’t move at all. Then he decided to go pick up the ball instead! I felt so impressed with him. What amazing self-control for such a young baby!
I consistently have my 2 year old keep food in the kitchen. Sometimes he forgets because he’s distracted with whatever he wants to go do in the living room. All I have to do is remind him by saying “I need you to keep your food in the kitchen.” And he usually comes right back to the kitchen. If not, I help him figure out a solution. “You want to be in the living room, but I need food to stay in there. Can you set it on the table and then go play?”
I’m telling these stories to give you more confidence that this method does work. If you are used to punishing, you may feel like you are doing nothing to teach them a lesson if you only redirect gently and consistently. But I assure you that this really works and it is a very effective way to teach toddlers.
Sometimes we forget just how much our kids learn just by watching our example. If you want your toddler to say please and thank you, say it to her often. If you want them to talk in a soft tone instead of yelling, be careful about your tone when you speak to them. Instead of calling out all mistakes, just relax a little and lead by the way you live. They will catch on. Don’t require them to apologize, just be quick to apologize yourself when you do something unkind. You be the adult. You be the calm one.
In the next part of this series, I will talk about times when your toddler is not being cooperative or tells you “no”. I will also discuss crying, screaming and tantrums. They aren’t always happy about your boundaries, but there is a way to work through these issues so that everyone’s needs are met.