So you want to know when it’s ok to begin disciplining your misbehaving munchkin? Discipline in its simplest forms can start as soon as 8 months of age. You’ll know it’s time when your once powerless little baby repeatedly slaps your face or pulls off your glasses…and laughs hysterically.

The Happiest Toddler philosophy on discipline is different from what you’ll get from other parenting schools of thought. It all starts with thinking of yourself as your child’s ambassador. Your job is to help your uncivilized toddler understand what good and bad behavior means for your family. To do that, you want to master 3 key skills the world’s best diplomats all use:

  • Communicating with respect (to avoid ruining the relationship and accidentally offending their host)
  • Speaking their language (with little kids, speak toddler-ese–use simple words and short phrases they understand)
  • Don’t be a pushover (In a serious conflict, an ambassador puts his foot down…and so should you!)

It’s Time to Set Some Limits! The Start of Discipline

Think of setting boundaries as a way to support your child: You’re building guardrails to guide her down the path of life. Because you want her to succeed, your limits must be reasonable, and your rules should focus on behavior that needs to stop immediately. If you’re consistent, your toddler will soon go along with your demands.

Discipline Is Just One Way of Teaching Right from Wrong

I recommend using all the techniques in The Happiest Toddler on the Block to guide your child to good behavior. These methods include creating routines, using distraction and compromise, as well as my favorite little tricks—time-ins, gossiping, playing the boob and more. When it comes to discipline, you’ll want to pick your battles.

Age-Appropriate Discipline Techniques

I suggest reserving punishment for what I call red-light behavior. That’s when your child breaks the rules you’ve decided you won’t compromise on–when she’s doing something dangerous (running into the street), acting aggressive (hitting, biting, being cruel) or breaking an important family rule (no drawing on the walls). For such scenarios, the 3 methods below are very effective with older babies and toddlers:

Kind Ignoring

Age: 8 months+
When to use it: In drama queen scenarios, e.g., when your child’s tears keep flowing because she has an audience, or when he continues a stubborn protest just because you’re watching.
Short explanation: Ignoring toddlers is absolutely a form of punishment—what they crave the most in life is your attention. With that said, you’ll want to be sure you to ignore them kindly. To do that, first, connect with respect (discussed at length in the book) by acknowledging your child’s feelings even though your message will be “no.” (Stop! No grabbing glasses.) Then walk to the other side of the room (or even sit nearby) but don’t look at her. Act busy (not mad, just disinterested) for 20 seconds or so. As soon as she stops breaking the rule, return with loving attention. Then offer your explanation, reassurance, etc.

The Time-Out

Age: 1 year+
When to use it: When you need your child to learn that he must stop when you say, “Stop.” Toddlerhood is the most dangerous period of childhood, and you need him to listen to your warnings.
How to Do It: Give one last warning and again, connect with respect. Ask your child if they want a time-out for continuing X behavior. (You want your child to learn a time-out is something he is doing to himself, not something you do to him. He always has a choice!) Then only go on to give the time out if he doesn’t stop. Calmly lead him to “the time-out place” (a chair or a corner to start) and say, “You’re on a time-out for X minutes so you can get calm again.” (Don’t worry about making an 8-month-old or young toddler stay put. In the beginning, you just want them to understand that ignoring rules will lead to a moment of isolation. For older kids, you’ll want to set a timer and you may need to confine them to a playpen or their room). As a rule of thumb, a time-out should last one minute per year of age. When time’s up (and the fit is over), ask if he’s calm and ready to come back…

I advise NOT talking about the time-out/his behavior for at least a half hour. Right afterward, you want to reconnect with him and forgive—another skill you want to teach him! Later in the day, you can revisit what happened, use my gossiping technique or even create your own bedtime story to reinforce your message.

Giving a “Fine”

Age: 2 years+. Especially good for toddlers 3+
When to use it: If your child repeatedly breaks an important rule.
How it works: Simple! Take away an object or a privilege. For example, if your toddler conks a friend with a toy bat, take away the bat and end the play date. Say, “No hitting. No bat when you hit. Now we go home.”

How NOT to Discipline a Child: Spanking

Hitting children teaches them that it’s okay for big people to hit little people, and that it’s okay to vent anger through violence. Now, I know there will be times when your toddler will make you really angry, but learning toddler-ese can give you an outlet for your frustration: Vent your anger by clapping and growling, not by shaking and slapping.

Learn more about all the techniques in this article (plus tons of troubleshooting tips for when you’re thrown for a loop) in The Happiest Toddler on the Block

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