Here are some ideas about how to vary your approach to discipline to best fit your family.
Ages 0 to 2
Babies and toddlers are naturally curious. So it's wise to eliminate temptations and no-nos — items such as TVs and video equipment, stereos, jewelry, and especially cleaning supplies and medicines should be kept well out of reach.
When your crawling baby or roving toddler heads toward an unacceptable or dangerous play object, calmly say "No" and either remove your child from the area or distract him or her with an appropriate activity.
Timeouts can be effective discipline for
. A child who has been hitting,
, or throwing food, for example, should be told why the behavior is unacceptable and taken to a designated timeout area — a kitchen chair or bottom stair — for a minute or two to calm down (longer timeouts are not effective for toddlers).
It's important to not spank, hit, or slap a child of any age. Babies and toddlers are especially unlikely to be able to make any connection between their behavior and physical punishment. They will only feel the pain of the hit.
And don't forget that kids learn by watching adults, particularly their parents. Make sure your behavior is role-model material. You'll make a much stronger impression by putting your own belongings away rather than just issuing orders to your child to pick up toys while your stuff is left strewn around.
Ages 3 to 5
As your child grows and begins to understand the connection between actions and consequences, make sure you start communicating the rules of your family's home.
Explain to kids what you expect of them before you punish them for a behavior. The first time your 3-year-old uses crayons to decorate the living room wall, discuss why that's not allowed and what will happen if your child does it again (for instance, your child will have to help clean the wall and will not be able to use the crayons for the rest of the day). If the wall gets decorated again a few days later, issue a reminder that crayons are for paper only and then enforce the consequences.
The earlier that parents establish this kind of "I set the rules and you're expected to listen or accept the consequences" standard, the better for everyone. Although it's sometimes easier for parents to ignore occasional bad behavior or not follow through on some threatened punishment, this sets a bad precedent. Empty threats undermine your authority as a parent, and make it more likely that kids will test limits. Consistency is the key to effective discipline, and it's important for parents to decide (together, if you are not a single parent) what the rules are and then uphold them.
While you become clear on what behaviors will be punished, don't forget to reward good behaviors. Don't underestimate the positive effect that your praise can have — discipline is not just about punishment, but also about recognizing good behavior. For example, saying "I'm proud of you for sharing your toys at playgroup" is usually more effective than punishing a child who didn't share. And be specific when giving praise rather than just saying "Good job!" You want to make it clear which behaviors you liked. This makes them more likely to happen in the future — the more attention we give to a behavior, the more likely it is to continue.
Timeouts also can work well for kids at this age. Pick a suitable timeout place, such as a chair or bottom step, that's free of distractions. Remember, getting sent to your room isn't effective if a computer, TV, or games are there. Also, a timeout is time away from any type of reinforcement. So your child shouldn't get any attention from you while in a timeout — including talking, eye contact, etc.
Be sure to consider the length of time that will work best for your child. Experts say 1 minute for each year of age is a good rule of thumb; others recommend using the timeout until the child is calmed down (to teach self-regulation). Make sure that if a timeout happens because your child didn't follow directions, you follow through with the direction after the timeout.
It's important to tell kids what the right thing to do is, not just to say what the wrong thing is. For example, instead of saying "Don't jump on the couch," try "Please sit on the furniture and put your feet on the floor."
Be sure to give clear, direct commands. Instead of "Could you please put your shoes on?" say "Please put your shoes on." This leaves no room for confusion and does not imply that following directions is a choice.