Ask Sally: Advice for Parents

Updated: Oct 31, 2018

Toddler Discipline - Without Shame (9 Guidelines)


A toddler acting out is not shameful, nor is it behavior that needs punishing. It’s a cry for attention, a shout-out for sleep, or a call to action for firmer, more consistent limits. It is the push-pull of our toddler testing his burgeoning independence. He has the overwhelming impulse to step out of bounds, while also desperately needing to know he is securely reined in. There is no question that children need discipline. As infant expert Magda Gerber said, “Lack of discipline is not kindness, it is neglect.”


The key to healthy and effective discipline is our attitude. Toddlerhood is the perfect time to hone parenting skills that will provide the honest, direct, and compassionate leadership our children will depend on for years to come.


Here are some guidelines:

1)      Begin with a predictable environment and realistic expectations.  A predictable, daily routine enables a baby to anticipate what is expected of him. That is the beginning of discipline. Home is the ideal place for infants and toddlers to spend the majority of their day. Of course, we must take them with us to do the shopping, but we cannot expect a toddler’s best behavior at dinner parties, long afternoons in coffee shops, or when his days are full with planned activities.

2)      Don’t be afraid, or take misbehavior personally. When toddlers act parents often worry that their child might be troublesome, a bully, an aggressive child.  When parents project those fears, it can cause the child to internalize the negative personas, or at least pick up on the parent’s tension, which often exacerbates the misbehavior. Instead of labeling a child’s action, learn to nip the behavior in the bud by disallowing it nonchalantly. If your child throws a ball at your face, try not to get annoyed. He doesn’t do it because he dislikes you, and he’s not a bad child. He is asking you (toddler-style) for the limits that he needs and may not be getting.

3)      Respond in the moment, respond calmly.  Finding the right tone for setting limits can take a bit of practice. Think of someone with authoiruty you respect - who corrects errors of others with confident, commanding efficiency. She doesn’t use an unsure, questioning tone, get angry or emotional. Our child needs to feel that we are not nervous about his behavior, or ambivalent about establishing rules. He finds comfort when we are effortlessly in charge.

Lectures, emotional reactions, scolding and punishments do not give our toddler the clarity he needs, and can create guilt and shame.  A simple, matter-of-fact “I won’t let you do that. If you throw that again I will need to take it away” while blocking the behavior with our hands is the best response. But react immediately. Once the moment has passed, it is too late. Wait for the next one!