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Discipline and Rules for Toddlers - How do kids learn responsibility?

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Thank you -- I find your answers very thoughtful & helpful.

We have a gentle, joyful little 20-month old (Isaiah) who I don't think has ever had a tantrum, but is definitely beginning to develop a will of his own My question is around rules -- how many to set & how to enforce them in order to encourage a sense of responsibility in my little guy.

At the moment, my rules are very few -- no opening the oven door, no climbing on the kitchen table, no bolting across the road, and no hitting. When he does one of these things, I explain why he can't do what he's doing, and I usually physically remove him from the situation and/or distract him. If he freaks out (which is pretty rare, really), I try to acknowledge the feeling by naming it, and either hold him or distract him.

I feel that this has been a reasonable way to go, so far. But I do wonder if at some point, I should be coming up with more rules & enforcing them in the name of his character or something!. For example: I remember reading once that a mom/author (a Baby Whisperer, I believe!!) CHOSE to leave some fragile things on low shelves so that she gave her child the opportunity to learn that some things were off limits. And this is the sort of thing that I never do. I assume that he's a bundle of desire & will & energy and I just try to clear a path for him to act on the world in a safe way.

I've never given him a time out. I've never really had to do a 'time in', as I think my 'rule threshold' is set so low (i.e. around safety) that he rarely crosses it. Because his temperament is quite slow/thoughtful/cautious, I don't think he's needed as much discipline so far, you know? I do actually try hard not to solve problems for him (I try to watch & wait while he figures things out -- like a puzzle or something), but the potential areas of real trouble I've just removed altogether. I figure: he's 20 months, so get the fragile stuff the heck out of his way!

But I am anxious to impart values of respect & responsibility. I am beginning to worry that I may not be a strict enough mom (in a loving way, I mean). Do you thing that stepping up on rules would engender responsibility -- should I be offering him more choices between making good vs. less good decisions and then trying to reinforce one or the other -- or if not, how do you think that responsibility/discipline get taught? Is it too early to even be thinking about this stuff?



What a great question! We all want to raise respectful, responsible kids. How best to do that?

I think what you are doing is perfect. Letting him solve problems for himself within the range of his capacity, and not setting him up with temptations that would then require reprimands. You are also lucky to have a cautious little guy so that you don't have to set as many limits.

The idea of teaching babies that some things are off limits by leaving some fragile things on lower shelves is sadly misguided. There is actually research on this. What it teaches kids is to be less creative in problem solving when they get older. If we want kids to think outside the box, we can't start them off in life by slapping their hands when they reach for fragile items.

Discipline means "to teach" and all humans learn best when they are not emotionally upset (because when we get upset we move into fight or flight, and we stop thinking.) So if you want to teach a child about values, the best way to do it is by being a good role model yourself and by discussing all the choices of everyday life. So 20 months is young to "teach values" verbally but a perfect time to start teaching values by modeling what you value. There are opportunities for this daily, such as expressing consideration for other humans: "Look, Dylan is sad. Maybe we can cheer him up. Can we share our cookies?"

But of course the most important way your son will learn is by how he is treated. Kids learn respect by being respected. Kids learn consideration by being treated with empathy and consideration.

Kids learn to make good decisions and exercise good judgment by having lots of practice, including the experience of making bad decisions. Naturally, you want them to practice with low-risk decisions: which shirt, which toy, etc. You can also model for him and involve him in decisions: "Hmm...should we bring jackets or not? How cold is it? Do we need an umbrella?" or "It would be fun to stomp in the puddle. But then our feet will be wet, and we will have wet feet all morning. Is it worth it?" Of course, only let him participate in the decision if you're willing to let him get his feet wet, lol!

As to your question about rules, I don't think setting and enforcing rules actually encourages responsibility in children. Setting and enforcing rules encourages obedience. It's fine to set and enforce rules, but if there are too many or they are not age-appropriate, then kids rebel and get into power struggles with us, which undermines our authority, and in fact the whole relationship. So I would never set rules just to have them, but for good reasons, like safety. And then, in enforcing them, kids can accept them a whole lot better if we empathize: "I know, you want to climb on the table. You like to see out the window. But it's dangerous, I can't let you climb up there. Here, what if I pick you up so you can look out the window?"

Kids learn responsibility because they want to please their parents, and rise to the occasion, when they are offered age-appropriate responsibility in a non-blaming manner. For a 20-month old, that means that when he spills his milk, you say kindly "Oops, milk spilled. Let's get the paper towels. We always clean up our own messes. Here, Mommy will help." Of course, you will do most of it, but by the time he's four, he will really be cleaning up his own messes.

As you can see, I do believe in holding high expectations for kids, and in setting limits. But my aspiration is to set those limits so well that my kids won't even know they're limits! After all, the goal is for them to internalize the ability to guide themselves constructively through life, and that is best accomplished by them learning to be gentle with themselves. (When people are harsh on themselves, they either get depressed or rebel, for instance by sabotaging a diet. When people are gentle with themselves, they are able to nurture themselves to overcome challenges, and they are nicer not just to themselves but to others.)

BTW, you might want to check out the section on my website on helping kids develop good Character and Values.

I have to add that the fact that your 20 month old has never had a tantrum is wonderful, and speaks to how supported he must feel by you. It isn't easy to be 20 months old!
Dr. Laura

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