Disciplining Toddlers without Spanking – Part 1

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.

Understanding

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.

Communication

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.

Choices

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.

Consistency

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.

Your Example

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.


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They Feel Pain

Most of the Christians I know would say they are “pro-life” at least to some degree. They say killing a baby is morally wrong and it doesn’t matter if that baby is inside or outside of a mother’s womb. If they believe life starts at conception, they will be against even the earliest abortions because a baby is a baby no matter how small.

I’ve seen many pro-life phrases but one that caught my attention recently was “they feel pain”. When I read that, I think of a baby squirming away from an abortion instrument. I think of a poor little baby in the safest place on earth suffering silently. But Christians everywhere are giving them a voice by standing against abortion. Proverbs 31:8 says, “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves”. Christians should always be standing up against violence towards those who don’t have much of a voice in our society.

The issue of abortion is not that different from the issue of spanking children. Both are acts of violence towards those who are powerless. Both issues cause suffering and pain. Both are wrong.

Some will say, “spanking done properly is not abuse or violence.” But where can we draw the line? Pain? Bruise? Death? Often corporal punishment DOES lead to stronger violence later. When will we admit that it’s morally wrong to hit/hurt a child just like its morally wrong to hurt an unborn baby? Abortion is a slippery slope just like abuse. Can we morally abort the day before the baby is born? 20 weeks gestation? 10? Let’s just stop trying to justify it altogether.

They say, “it’s for their own good”. But their are no benefits to spanking children or aborting babies. Spanking doesn’t teach your child a lesson any better than a spanking would teach your spouse one. Do the research yourself but spanking has been proven to be ineffective and damaging. No one is better off hurt just like no one is better off dead. We shouldn’t abort babies just because we think they will have a miserable life. We shouldn’t hurt kids to teach them a lesson when we could teach them a different way without hurting them.

And if you think God wants us to spank children because of Prov. 23:13, why wouldn’t you also take Jer. 20:14-17 so literally and out of context concerning abortion? When I take the Bible as a whole, I see that God is so much more loving and gracious and merciful than the best of us humans. I see no justification for any violence against babies and children.

I think Christians should be the ones leading the argument against spanking children. I think Christians should be the ones to rise up and say “they feel pain,” this is damaging, and this is morally wrong. We should feel our hearts grieve because of the violence against babies and children alike. I pray that more Christians will be able to see the damage that spankings can do and start to stand up for those who have no voice.

A New Outlook

I see a little person who is full of life and curiousity. I see someone who is full of energy. I see someone who is entertaining himself the best way he can in the given situation.

I see someone who needs my help to get through the tough moments in life. I see a person who expresses his feeings the best way he knows how. I see someone who is open and honest.

I see someone who loves his brother and is trying his best to communicate and connect. I see someone who has an idea or plan that he doesn’t want to be interrupted.

As I focus on this perspective, I don’t see the attitudes and naughtiness I used to see. I don’t see the manipulation and disrespect. I don’t see the “fit” so much.

I see a wonderful little person who is always doing the best he can. I see communication and I see needs I can meet. I see love and a desire to do what is right. I see goodness and a beauty I might miss if I was focused on his mistakes.

I see him learning. And that is all I expect of him and all that I expect of myself…that we keep learning. We are growing and changing. We are not perfect, but I will extend him grace in the process. I will view him as the wonderful little person he is.

“Negative” Emotions

My one year old just started experiencing the wet noodle syndrome quite frequently when he can’t have something he wants. He also has pretty big meltdowns and has a very loud scream. I know a lot of people who would consider this “bad” behavior, but I don’t see it that way.

It’s okay to experience and express “negative” emotions. There is no reason to fear them. There is no reason to suppress them. “Negative” emotions have a positive side too. The biggest positive I can see in my toddlers emotions is how they can drive more connection. Every time I respond to him kindly with empathy, he feels more safe with me. I want him to feel safe telling me about anything.

Rom. 12:15 tells us to, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” This is the most loving way to treat someone who is dealing with strong emotions. If we try to relate to our children’s feelings, they will feel so much more supported than if we try to talk them out of their feelings logically. It’s better to say, “I see that you really wanted that” instead of “you shouldn’t be so upset, it’s just a toy.”

Eccl. 3:4 says there is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance”. When we let this “time to weep” play out fully, we can experience the time to rejoice with freedom. If we try to get our child to be quiet and not express what they are feeling, we make it even harder for them to move forward into their season of joy.”

It’s okay to be angry too. Eph. 4:26  says “Be angry and do not sin.” It’s okay if my child is mad about a decision I made. When two people are in a relationship they will disagree with each other sometimes. I may decide to give my toddler one cookie but not more and my toddler may strongly disagree with my decision. I don’t need to change my mind about no more cookies or change his mind, but I can still respond calmly and kindly to my child and recognize their strong disagreement. I can make my child feel heard while sticking to what I think is best for them.

After I have been away from my two year old for a few hours, he builds up some feelings he needs to release to me. He may be whiny for a bit after I return or he may cry loudly over something that wouldn’t typically bother him so much. But he gets all those feelings out, he reconnects with me, and then he feels completely better. It’s a beautiful thing that God created a way for us to connect and feel better through expressing “negative” emotions.

I keep using quotation marks around “negative” because they are only as negative as we see them. They may be uncomfortable but they are far from useless. So much good can come when tough feelings are simply expressed and recognized by a caring family member or friend.

I Matter

It’s easy for me to see the value of my children’s lives. I see how much they are a blessing to me and everyone who knows them. I see how they brighten someone’s day. I think of how much they have taught me. I am a better person because of them. The world is a better place because of their short existence. I have no question about their worth and value.

They deserve to be loved and nurtured and listened to. They deserve to be loved unconditionally. They deserve to be treated with respect. They deserve to have some people in their lives who completely adore them and value them.

But I tend to forget that I matter too. I don’t always realize it when I brighten someone’s day. I don’t always see the value of the mundane housework and childcare tasks. I forget that every cry I respond to and every question I answer really matters. Being a mom matters. Just being me matters.

I deserve to be loved and nurtured and listened to. I deserve to be loved unconditionally. I deserve to be treated with respect. I deserve to have some people in my life who completely adore me and value me.

I matter too. And sometimes I forget that. Sometimes I feel like I’m replaceable and insignificant. Sometimes I feel like my value depends on how many people I reach or how much I accomplish in my life. The truth is…I have value apart from all that I do or don’t do. I add something to this world that no one else can offer.

I am important and valuable. I matter.

Hitting Is Not Loving

The “loving spanking” is an oxymoron. The idea that one can purposely cause someone else pain in a loving way just doesn’t make sense. When I see someone hit another person I know intrinsically that it is not a loving act and I cringe. When I see someone get hit I can relate to the physical and emotional pain that it causes.

What is the difference between an adult hitting another adult and an adult hitting a child? We are all humans. The age difference and size difference and vulnerability of a child doesn’t make the act any better. The spanking “method” doesn’t change a hit into an act of love. Even the best intentions of a parent don’t lessen the effects of a spanking on a child. It is confusing when the very person that a child runs to for safety from danger also becomes the source of pain.

It is deception that says if you love your child you will spank them. It is false doctrine that teaches parents that they should spank their children to teach them right from wrong. It is fear and stress and hurts that drive parents to continue the cycle of spanking.

A spanking is a hit. A hit is an act of violence. Violence leads to more violence. And the opposite of all these things is love.

It’s love that drives out the fear. Love brings honor and respect. Love is patient and kind and gentle. You can’t go wrong when you meet a child’s misbehavior with love. Not “tough love” or a “loving spanking”. But true, understanding, compassionate love. That kind of love will make this world a better place.

Stop Thinking

One night I was feeling overwhelmed and these words really spoke to me. Sometimes the best thing I can do is to stop thinking about how impossible my situation is and just do it. 

“I have noticed today that when I walk downstairs, if I try to think too much about the actual mechanics of walking down stairs…the left and then the right…I start to feel a sensation like I could trip myself up and fall down the stairs. When I stop thinking about it and just do it, I don’t feel so confused or like I could fall.

Sometimes, we overwhelm ourselves even more by getting caught up in how impossible what we’re doing seems to be.

If we can stay focused on BEING and only NOW…we create just that much space for doing well in the here and now and even perhaps finding moments of joy.”

Marji Zintz

Www.peacefulparentwhisperer.com