Toddlers – kids who are between 15 months and 3 years of age – are an adorable group of people! They are just beginning to develop their speech and motor skills which essentially means they are beginning to develop their power. Instead of lying immobile in a parent’s arms, a car seat or a stroller, this group of small people can now do damage! They can hurt an infant, dive into the toilet bowl, rummage through garbage cans and even run out of the house. From their point of view they are only doing what comes naturally: exploring the amazing world around them. However, from the parents’ point of view they are doing what they shouldn’t be doing: engaging in activities that are dangerous, messy, destructive, inappropriate or otherwise undesirable. If an older child were to be similarly occupied, he or she would be disciplined. The trouble with toddlers is that they are too young to be disciplined in the traditional manner. What’s a parent to do?
Teaching Toddlers to Behave
Here’s the good news: toddlers can be educated! The primary way of providing this education is through the judicious application of attention (at the right moments). Keep in mind the main, guiding principle: all attention reinforces behavior. This means that if you ever give any attention of any kind to a toddler, that child will do more of what you have been attending to. For instance, if you smile at a toddler who is gently stroking the new baby, then the toddler will tend to gently stroke the new baby more often. Also, if you yell at a toddler who is squeezing the baby too hard, then the toddler will tend to squeeze the baby too hard more often. ALL attention reinforces behavior – not just pleasant attention.
Now, using this knowledge, you can cleverly shape the behavior of your toddler. Do you want the toddler to say “please?” Then after the youngster says “please” give praise and/or concrete rewards. Do you want him to clean up his toys? Then, after he puts a toy away, show excitement and pleasure verbally and or physically (give a big hug or a pat on the head). Do you want the child to play quietly while you’re on the phone with a business call? Then make sure to give her some special cookies and milk when she manages to do so.
Notice that you are purposefully using attention to increase your toddler’s desirable behaviors. To do so you have to ask yourself “what behavior do I want to see more of?” However, what if you see a behavior that you want to see LESS of? What do you do then?
Again, keep in mind the over-riding attention principle described above. If your child is doing something you don’t want him to be doing, refrain from giving him attention! Instead, figure out what the opposite or desirable behavior is, get him to do that behavior (or wait for it to happen spontaneously) and use positive attention to reinforce the desirable behavior. For example, if the toddler enjoys dipping his hand in the toilet, ask yourself what you want him to be doing instead of playing in the toilet. Let’s say that you WANT him to play with his toys near his toy chest. Then, when you find him at the toilet bowl, gently lift him up and put him in front of his toy chest and give him LOTS of attention for playing in the right spot. Refrain from shrieking at him as he sticks his hand in the toilet bowl. If you get red in the face and start sounding hysterical when he’s near the toilet, he’ll be thrilled! It’s fun to see you go nuts! He’ll just love all that attention. He’ll definitely spend every free minute running to that bowl just to see your reaction. However, if you act absolutely bored by his bathroom escapades, and simultaneously absolutely THRILLED when he’s near his toybox, then he’ll veer toward that toybox more and more often.
Consequences for Toddlers
Older toddlers and very smart younger ones can sometimes be punished for inappropriate behavior. However, if you give a toddler a consequence on three different occasions, you must make sure that it is having a positive effect. Many people put a toddler in his crib or room for hurting a baby or hitting an adult. That’s fine if it “works” – that is, if it reduces the hurting hitting behavior. But if you’ve been disciplining your toddler in this way for months on end with no improvement in his behavior, then STOP using that consequence immediately! Always check after a few times to see whether a consequence has changed the child’s behavior and if it hasn’t, then change the consequence! Some toddlers will willing sit on a “thinking chair” when asked to. Again, that’s great – as long as the sitting leads to a positive change in behavior. If you are ready to try using negative consequences with your toddler, be sure to use the 2X-Rule (see Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice by Sarah Chana Radcliffe for details). This structured form of discipline will help keep you calm and prevent emotional damage to your child. Always warn your child before giving a consequence. Always use a consequence you’re willing to carry out. Minimize the amount of attention you give your toddler when you’re giving a negative consequence because – as you now know – the attention itself can encourage more inappropriate behavior.