Setting the boundaries with little ones
Here are some simple, but effective discipline strategies for your two to four-year-old.
At a glance
- Praise little ones on their good behaviour so they aren't just getting your attention when they are playing up
- Try and stay calm and don't just give in to what they want
- Distraction works well and can make them forget what they were about to tantrum about
Discipline is a slightly scary word; it brings to mind fierce 1950's nannies and forbidding schoolteachers. But actually, children really want you to set boundaries for them and enforce discipline. It makes them feel safe, secure and loved. If they were allowed to do anything they wanted it would be scary; they’d feel no one cared enough to look out for them.
It’s important to agree your approach to discipline with your partner so there are no cracks for your little one to exploit; it’s no good saying no to a snack before lunch if they know your partner will give in straight away.
Aim for calm and consistent
No parent can be calm all the time when faced with the outrageous unreasonableness of a toddler or pre-schooler – so don’t feel bad for losing it and shouting sometimes. Everyone’s been there, but aim to be calm as much of the time as you can manage. And always be consistent.
If you challenge their behaviour or say no to something, never give in or change your mind (even if you really wish you hadn't embarked on it in the first place!). If you do, you will be teaching them that if they whine or keep misbehaving they will get what they want in the end.
If you’ve asked them to do something (like tidy up their toys before bed) and they refuse and have a tantrum, make sure they do it in the end so you've been consistent with your expectations. Sometimes you might have to cheat a bit and say, ‘let’s tidy up the toys together – which side of the room do you want to do?’
Take more notice of the good behaviour
This is the key strategy: if we only show our little ones attention when they are behaving badly, they quickly learn the message that being naughty is the best way to get us interested.
Kids are pre-programmed to get as much attention from adults as possible, so they don’t really mind that your attention is negative – to them it’s better than nothing.
It’s so easy to fall into this pattern accidentally. Try praising them when they’re good, helpful and co-operative (‘thanks for helping me sort out the socks – that was a big help’ or ‘well done for waiting so nicely for your turn’). It might take some time to get used to, but try to spend more time praising than telling off.
Set aside time each day for proper face-to-face attention and play so they don’t feel they’re coming second to your smartphone all the time. Nothing induces bad behaviour quite like the sight of mum on her phone. But if you play with them for 10 minutes, giving your full attention, then say, ‘Mummy needs to make a phone call now’ they are more likely to accept it.
This really works, especially if you can manage to distract them in the early stages of a refusal to co-operate. If they’re about to throw food, rather than immediately saying ‘No!’, distract their attention with anything random: ‘goodness – your broccoli looks like it’s got a nose.’ Or ‘wow, look at that spider’s web on the window’.
If they’re playing up while out shopping, ask for their help instead: ‘can you find the tins of tomatoes for me?’ Humour can sometimes draw their attention away from an impending showdown: when battling over putting on coats, put yours on back to front as a joke: ‘how do I look? Shall we do yours like that?’
Pick your battles
At this age they are testing your boundaries all day every day, so if you challenge every little infringement, you’ll soon be spending all day saying ‘no’ – which is depressing and upsetting for you and will only end up encouraging their bad behaviour.
Ignoring minor misdemeanours is sometimes better. Giving ‘fake’ choices often works because it gives them an illusion of power. So if you’re having regular battles over putting on their coat to go out, say: ‘which arm first – you choose’.
Put your serious face on
You don’t have to shout (this is often counter-productive anyway) but it’s not much use saying sweetly ‘no, darling, let’s not throw our dinner on the floor’ while smiling. Your little one will be confused by the mixed messages you’re sending out.
If you’ve decided their behaviour is worth challenging, put your best serious face on, get down to their level and use a firm voice: ‘Please don’t throw your food. It’s not what we do’. If the behaviour continues, it’s best to replace words by actions: take the food away and ignore their protests. Then when the bad behaviour has stopped, find something to praise (‘you’re sitting really nicely, well done’) so you’re giving attention for good behaviour.
Advice from the experts
“With younger toddlers, your most important tactics are diversion and distraction. It’s much easier to move them onto something else that’s interesting than to say no.”
“Try to keep ‘no’ to a minimum. Be positive. Say, ‘we will play as soon as I finish this’, not: ‘no, I’m too busy’. Or: ‘I bet I can race you to the bath’, not ‘right, you must get into the bath now’.”
Parenting expert Eileen Hayes