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Embracing Positive Discipline: Nurturing Growth in Toddlers

Believe it or not, I get a lot of hate for the way I discipline my son. I think it’s because I don’t use “traditional” punishments like yelling, spanking, or time outs. Many people believe that discipline = punishment; however, discipline shares the root with “disciple” which means “to teach”. From my experience, children don’t learn a lesson from sitting in a corner all by themself. They might learn to not do something, but have they learned why? When children are spanked they don’t learn a lesson either- they learn to fear punishment and the person delivering it. It is not my goal to have my child fear me; it is my goal to create a nurturing and supportive environment for my toddler- to encourage his growth and development while instilling important life skills. I’d like to tell you a little bit about positive discipline, which offers an alternative approach that prioritizes respect (from the child and the parent), understanding, and teaching over punitive measures. We absolutely discipline in our house, it just looks a little different than the norm.

Natural Consequences as Valuable Learning Opportunities

In my house, we practice natural consequences. A natural consequence is something that happens as a result of an unwanted action or behavior. For instance, instead of yelling at and shaming my child for spilling a full glass of water, I give him the opportunity to help me clean it up. By doing this, he learns that when we make a mess, we clean it up. I have realistic expectations based on his age and current development; I don’t expect him to clean it up perfectly all by himself. Instead, I assist him and while we clean up, I talk about the different ways we can clean the mess. As he grows up, I’ll give him the opportunity to think critically and decide how he wants to clean up the mess.

When we isolate our children into time out, they aren’t developmentally capable of understanding why they are being left alone. When I hear someone say “go to time out and think about what you’ve done”, I am reminded of how little society understands about brain development. Our children rely on their parents or caregivers to co-regulate in order to process their feelings and emotions. They borrow our calm during their storm, and only then are they able to fully regulate. Instead of isolating your child to a time out, I recommend something similar to a “time in” which is a term used often in the gentle parenting world. First we have to allow for our child to feel their emotions; during this time it’s important to put a name to what they’re feeling, and assure them that it is okay and normal to have that feeling. Then, when both the parent and the child are regulated and calm, we can teach about the moment and offer alternative ways to handle the big feelings. Children are unable to learn new skills when they are dysregulated, or in fight or flight. So when they’re actively throwing blocks, or screaming and flailing on the floor, or upset for seemingly no reason, that is not the right time to try and “discipline”. It’s imperative to wait until the storm has passed and both the child and parent are in a regulated state of mind before we move on to teaching.

Here are a couple of examples of how I put this into practice in my home.

Example one: My son’s favorite thing to do is play in the water. It can be a bowl, the tub, the sink, the pool- literally any body of water, big or small, he’s going to play in it. One time (many times) he was playing in the sink and he spilled water all over the kitchen floor. The natural consequence to this was cutting his play time short and having him help me clean up the water on the floor. When we were done with that, I explained to him why we cut his time in the water short, and told him how to avoid that in the future. If I were to have yelled at him, he wouldn’t have learned the valuable lesson of cleaning up his mess, and he’d likely be afraid to make messes in the future for fear of my angry reaction. Keep in mind it’s unrealistic to expect children not to make messes.

Example two: We have an old set of wooden blocks that are incredibly sturdy and quite weighty. My son was playing with them one evening and he got mad so he started throwing the blocks at the wall and at my wife and I. It’s developmentally normal for our toddlers to test boundaries and limits; most of the time the throwing happens as a result of big feelings that our kids don’t know how to process on their own. I gently grabbed his wrist, made sure I was on his level, got his attention, and told him that if he throws another block he will help us clean them up and they will be put away for the rest of the night. When he made the choice to throw another block, I stuck to my boundary and we cleaned up the blocks and put them out of reach for the night. My son had big feelings about this, on top of his initial anger. I sat with him, named his anger, frustration, and disappointment, and allowed him to ride the waves of his meltdown. He borrowed my calm, eventually settled down, and we moved on to another activity. When I knew he was calm, I explained to him why he can’t throw his toys, and how it hurts people. I was able to demonstrate different calming techniques like dinosaur breaths that he could use when he is feeling angry. It felt good to support my child through his feelings. It felt right to sit with him instead of isolate him. Was it hard to hold my boundary and keep my cool after a block was thrown at my head? Of course it was. But the end result (my relationship with my child and the opportunity to teach him) was worth it.

Example three: We visited my in-laws recently and my nieces and son got to spend the weekend together. They all had a great time together, but of course when you get multiple kids with lots of personalities together, there’s always a risk for discourse. One of my nieces was playing with a toy that my son wanted to play with, and he is still working on sharing and asking for what he wants. Without knowing how to do that, he hit her. I was nearby but unable to stop the hit, so I intervened as soon as possible, and physically removed my child from the situation. Violence is something we work hard to avoid, and it is an inevitable part of toddlerhood. I modeled asking his cousin for the toy that he wanted, and asked him if he would practice that with me, instead of using force to get what he wants. When he made the choice to try and hit my niece again, the natural consequence was him not getting to play with his cousin for some time, as he was not asking for what he wanted appropriately. By removing him from the situation, I was able to be sure he and his cousin stayed safe. When he was calm, I explained to him why he can’t hit, and how he can ask for what he wants instead of using force. If I had sent him to time out, he likely would have returned to the situation and repeated the same unwanted behavior because he didn’t learn anything from sitting in a chair by himself for a couple of minutes.

Encouraging Self-Discipline and Empowering Toddlers Through Choices

I want to equip my child with the tools necessary to practice self-discipline and make appropriate decisions. Positive discipline focuses on teaching children self-discipline rather than imposing control through punishment. By setting clear boundaries and providing consistent guidance, we offer toddlers the tools to make appropriate choices and understand the consequences of their actions. This approach helps foster responsibility and self-control as they grow. As parents, offering limited choices within established boundaries can empower our toddlers to develop a sense of autonomy. This technique reduces power struggles and promotes cooperation.

Here are a few examples of the way I allow my child to make choices:

  • Offering two outfits for the day

  • Offering two snack options

  • Offering two ways to get into the bath tub

  • Offering two activities

  • Offering two different timers when we finish activities

Building Connection and Mutual Respect While Promoting Emotional Intelligence

At the core of positive discipline is a strong and loving parent-child relationship. By fostering open communication, empathy, and cooperation, we create a safe space for toddlers to express themselves freely. This bond becomes a source of comfort, security, and guidance, ensuring that discipline is a positive and supportive experience. Establishing a bond based on mutual respect helps children feel secure, loved, and valued. Because of this, it is imperative to actively listen to our children, empathize with their emotions, and acknowledge their perspectives. In doing so, we lay the foundation for effective communication and understanding, which then allows for a strong connection and mutual respect to be formed. Toddlers often struggle with managing their emotions, leading to tantrums and meltdowns. Positive discipline emphasizes teaching emotional intelligence by helping them identify and express their feelings constructively. By validating their emotions and guiding them through calming techniques, we equip toddlers with essential emotional regulation skills.

One way that I practice open communication is by refraining from judgment and immediate punishment when my child does something undesirable. Instead, I try to get curious about the behavior and figure out why he may have done something (because all behavior communicates a need). In doing this, I am able to strengthen our relationship and provide a safe space for my son to communicate with me freely. Let me share a story about a time he confessed something to me completely unprompted, because he felt safe to do so without fear of punishment:

When I pick my son up from daycare, I ask him three questions: did you have a good day; did you play with your friends; and, were you nice to your friends? One day when I asked him that last question (were you nice to your friends?) he looked at me and said "I push". I got curious and asked, "you pushed your friends today?" He replied, "yes" - to which I continued my curiosity and tried to get some answers out of my two year old. I understand that he is unable to fully communicate his emotions from the day with me, but I was so proud of him for coming home and telling me he made a mistake (even if he didn't perceive it that way). I believe that if I were to punish him by yelling, spanking, or putting him in time out every time he made a mistake, he wouldn't view me as a safe space to admit his wrongs to. I want my son to feel comfortable coming to me with anything he feels the need to, and I do believe by using positive discipline, I am nurturing that relationship we share and benefiting both of us.

Reinforcing Positive Behaviors

Positive reinforcement is a powerful tool in shaping a child's behavior. By praising and acknowledging our toddlers for their efforts, accomplishments, and displays of appropriate behavior, we motivate them to continue making positive choices. This approach boosts their self-esteem and confidence, encouraging a growth mindset. I think many people stray away from over-praising their child’s behavior; maybe because they don’t want their kids to expect praise every time they do something right, or maybe because they don’t think good behavior deserves reward. However, utilizing positive reinforcement encourages desired behaviors, builds self-esteem, motivates learning, and strengthens relationships. By focusing on the positive aspects of behavior, positive reinforcement contributes to personal growth, happiness, and success in various aspects of life.

Incorporating positive discipline into our parenting approach has numerous benefits for both our toddlers and ourselves. By building a strong connection based on mutual respect, teaching self-discipline, and embracing natural consequences, we provide toddlers with a nurturing environment to thrive. Promoting emotional intelligence, reinforcing positive behaviors, and empowering them through choices contribute to their growth and development in a positive and loving way. As we embark on this journey of positive discipline, I encourage you to celebrate the small wins, cherish the moments of connection, and witness your toddlers blossoming into confident, responsible, and compassionate individuals. Together, we can create a harmonious and supportive environment where love and understanding pave the way for a brighter future for our children.

Wishing you a week full of positivity, in all ways possible!

Brianna, The Patient Parent

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