The first few years of life are the perfect time to introduce loving discipline

How early can we introduce loving discipline? As soon as our little ones can spit food, scream “no!” or sink their teeth into a sibling. Toddlers, like great scientists, constantly run experiments, attempting to discover how the world works. If we can help them see that good behavior brings about more favorable outcomes than bad, they’re more likely to become well-mannered teens who are responsible and fun to be around.

While parenting young children is never for the faint of heart, it can be a lot more fun and rewarding if we apply some practical tips:

Remember that actions speak louder than words

A few months ago I witnessed a young mother doing a marvelous job of parenting in the produce section. As she searched for the right honeydew melon, her little honey tested limits by wandering away. Instead of lecturing or issuing threats, she calmly apprehended him, gently placed him in the cart and lovingly buckled his seatbelt. With kindness in her voice she said, “Oh, this is sad. Kids who run away have to stay in the seatbelt.”

Did he thank her for her wonderful wisdom? Nope. At the top of his lungs he repeated, “You mean mommy! Down! Down! Down!”

Instead of giving in to embarrassment, trying to convince him that she was a good mother or resorting to bribes, she casually pulled the cart toward the melons and resumed her shopping.

Apply the three Ls

I teach parents Three Ls that stand for three simple and pragmatic ways of setting and enforcing limits with young children:

  • Change your location
  • Change the object’s location
  • Change the child’s location

In some situations, the best approach involves empathetically uttering, “This is a bummer. I will read to you as long as your fingers are not in your nose.” As the words “…your nose” are coming out of our mouth, we are closing the book and moving away from the child.

Sometimes it’s more appropriate to change the location of an object by saying something like, “Oh, no. I let kids play with toys as long as there is no fighting over them,” and removing the toy for a while.

Other times it’s best to sing with empathy, “Uh-oh. This is so sad,” and place the child in the shopping cart, stroller, their bedroom or some other spot. Allow them to come out as soon as they are calm… but no sooner.

When we remember that actions speak louder than words and we apply the Three Ls, we help our small ones learn that words have meaning. We teach them that choices matter. These lessons will become even more important as our children grow, experience new hormones and begin driving.

Remind yourself that fits now are better than fits at 15!

Some parents fear fits so much that they appease their young kids. They rarely set limits, rarely enforce the few they set and try their best to ensure that life is never frustrating or boring for their children. Ironically, these parents tend to create the most chronically frustrated, bored and generally upset preteens, teens and adults.

Create an ‘I Love You Too Much To Argue’ Home

A very damaging pattern develops in many homes during the toddler and “terrible two” ages: The child learns that having fits, whining and arguing allows them to gain attention and unhealthy control over his or her parents’ words and emotions. Let’s consider two parents handling the same fit:

 Parent A

Child screams, “Not fair! Not fair! I want it.” Parent replies with frustration, “That’s not true! I am fair. Do you think that money grows on trees? You stop that whining! I mean it!” The parents and the child argue back and forth.

Parent B

Child screams, “Not fair! Not fair! I want it!” Parent smiles lovingly and calmly replies, “Oh…I love you too much to argue.”

Regardless of what the child says, the parent repeats, “I love you too much to argue,” and moves away from the child.

While Parent A is training the child to argue, Parent B is disengaging from the argument and teaching that arguing doesn’t pay.

Practice Empathy

Setting and enforcing limits with anger, sarcasm or shame leads to resentment and rebellion. Doing so with sincere empathy fosters respect and responsibility. Let’s consider two different parents handling the same saliva-sharing saga:

 Parent A

With an angry voice says, “For crying out loud! You spit on your brother. That’s it! When we go to park today, you have to sit next to me and watch the other kids play. I hope this teaches you a lesson.”

Parent B

Doing her best to sound sad rather than mad says, “Oh, this is so sad. You spit on your brother. Oh, man…I’m worried that this might happen at the park, too. I think it would be safer if you sat next to me so it doesn’t.”

Enjoy Them

Loving discipline leads to more peaceful and loving life-long relationships. The earlier we start, the sooner we’ll begin to enjoy kids who are respectful, responsible and really fun to be around. They are a gift. Have fun and enjoy!

Charles Fay, Ph.D. is a specialist in child, adolescent and family psychotherapy, assessment of learning, emotional and behavioral problems in children and adolescents, parent training methods and family therapy. Dr. Fay works full time as a parent, author, consultant, public speaker and CEO of the Love and Logic Institute.