Q: Whenever I try to discipline my 13-month-old by telling her, No and swatting her hand when she touches something she shouldn't, she just laughs and thinks it's a game. Then she'll keep opening the drawers or picking the flowers in the garden, or whatever else I'm trying to stop her from doing. How can I let her know I'm being serious?
A: Toddlerhood, while incredibly delightful, can also be very frustrating for all parties involved. Toddlers are eager to use all their developing skills to make new discoveries. The world is their classroom, which means they get into everything. At the same time, they do not yet have the ability to control their impulses. This means that they can’t stop themselves from doing something they desire, no matter how many times you tell them not to do it. You see this behavior when a 1-year-old stops what she is doing when she hears, NO!, but then is back at it shortly thereafter.
So how do you get your child to take you seriously? First, it’s important to recognize that your child will not be able to stop unacceptable behaviors on her own at this age. That doesn’t mean you don’t set limits, you just need to have realistic expectations. Also, young children respond best when words are coupled with action. Rather than just telling them to stop doing something, it helps to show them what you mean.
Take the opening of the drawers. While it’s understandable why you don’t want her doing this, she isn’t purposefully trying to make you mad. She is exploring. So, the first step is to tell her in a matter-of-fact (not angry) tone that she cannot play with the drawer. At the same time, gently lift her hand and move her away.
Next, find something else that functions like a drawer but is acceptable to you so she can have the experience of opening and closing to see what she can find. Try a shoebox with a favorite toy inside. This is known as redirection. You are recognizing and acknowledging your child’s desire for exploration and offering her an acceptable way to meet this need. You will have to do this many times until your child gets closer to 3 years and begins to develop better self-control. This process takes a lot of persistence and patience on your part as well. But it’s well worth it because you are teaching your child a very important skill—how to cope with life’s frustrations and disappointments.
As for her laughter and smiles as you try to discipline her, ignore them. The rule of thumb is that you pay as little attention as possible to behaviors you want to eliminate. Why? Because any attention—positive or negative—is rewarding. If you don’t react, she is more likely to give the behavior up. This is why it’s most effective to stay calm and matter of fact when you set limits. The more emotional you get, the more rewarding it is to her.
Finally, when it comes to discipline, it’s important to carefully think about the possible impact of any strategy you might use. The concern about hand-slapping, or any other kind of physical discipline, is that while it may stop her behavior in the moment, research shows that it may not lead to long-lasting learning of positive behaviors. In addition, it teaches a child that when people are angry, it is okay to hit, which increases the chance that she will hit when she is angry. It can also make children behave out of fear, rather than from an internal desire to do the right thing.