Learning to discipline a 1-year-old

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My son thinks the word “no” is hysterical. No matter our firm tone and serious-parent glare. He just giggles and giggles like it’s playtime. I was starting to think this must mean he’s on his way to being a sociopath, but the Internet assures me he’s just too young to get it.

So I just swallow my urge to either laugh with him or scream in frustration. Now we’re really starting to parent – which is much different from the caretaking that consumes must of the first year. We’ve graduated from making sure the baby is fed, clothed, changed and loved. And now my husband and I have to PARENT. This means figuring out our respective approaches, modifying said approaches, and of course, disagreeing on those approaches.

I am getting hints that my husband will be a bit more of the disciplinarian. That drivel about a 1-year-old being too young to understand time-outs and even consistently grasp the “no” concept? Psht. The kid will figure it out if we start him young. Some behaviors that I see as harmless toddler world-exploring – smearing and throwing food, for example – are off limits to him and warranting of a stern tone.

Sure, I think limits are important. So is discipline. But at what age? And when? And how much? When he smears food because it’s fun and feels good? When he snatches a toy from another kid (my son excels at this)? Or when he swats at the dog? I’m trying to find that elusive line between setting boundaries and respecting that his little brain is programmed to unwittingly push boundaries and slowly drive his parents insane.

We’ve been easing into the discipline for several months. A hand in the dog bowl would earn the boy a firm “no” and swift whisking away to another distraction. He used to be much easier to redirect, and still is to some extent. But as he becomes smarter and more mobile, we’re faced with having to ramp up the discipline.

My husband suggested that we start with simple time-outs to help him understand that “no” isn’t a silly game, but an order. When my son laughs and continues the behavior (like his new awesome habit of swatting at my face and neck when I’m holding him), we should sit him down in a chair and hold him there sternly while counting to 10. We’ve done it once, and I watched the grin melt from my kid’s face as a whimper emerged. From what I’ve read, toddlers don’t grasp the concept of a traditional time-out until between their second and third birthdays. My husband doesn’t doubt that, but makes a point (which is probably right) that we should all start getting used to time-out as an option now, because he will be a full-blown, line-stepping toddler any minute now.

I haven’t quite embraced the time-outs. I’m just not convinced he’s old enough for all of that. It’s like cussing. I still have a few months before I have to really watch my language, right? RIGHT?! No? He’s picking up on that stuff right now as I mumble obscenities to the driver next to me? Curses. Maybe he is old enough for time-outs.

I’d rather set the tone of teaching him alternatives, though, instead of jumping right into the discipline. Dr. Sears offers an approach that seems more my speed: Teach the differentiation in touch. There’s “yes-touch” for smacking and pawing and fingering things are safe. Then “no-touch” for hot or dangerous things like the stove. And then “soft-touch” for people and animals. So the idea is the next time to wallops me on the cheek, I gently guide his hand in to a gentle “soft-touch.”

I’m skeptical that will work any better than a 10-second time-out, but I also underestimated how quickly he’d take to some basic sign language to communicate a few of his needs. He surprised me with that. And with pretty much every thing else he’s done so far in his life. They become thirsty brain sponges so much quicker than you’d ever expect, watching and learning and reacting to everything we say and do. As he’s figuring out the world, we’re trying to figure out how to let him safely explore it.

Discipline tips

Once again, I’m no expert but I sure can Google. Here are a few pointers for disciplining a toddler from people who probably know what they’re talking about:

  1. Deal with meltdowns by comforting and distracting. Kneel down to the baby’s level and explain that you understand she’s frustrated, but she just can’t play with that glass or that it is indeed time to get into the car seat. I’ve been trying this approach when the meltdowns begin and it seems to work a little. I think my boy is calmed a bit by my tone, which is hopefully suggesting to him that I get it, he’s not so alone and mad, and we are working it out together. It seems like I can more easily encourage the desired behavior after a moment of acknowledgement.
  2. Start time-outs by taking them together. Here the idea is to take a break from the situation and read a book together or do some other quiet activity.
  3. Distract and divert, rather than taking away the unauthorized object or whisking him away from the chord. This might help avoid a come-apart, but you have to make sure the diversion is way more interesting, shinier, and makes more noise than the initial target.

Any tips for starting the discipline?


(Feature photo courtesy from the tranquil parent.)