When Should Discipline Begin?

How soon should a parent start responding to behavioral problems in the early childhood years? I'm especially interested in hearing your thoughts on the issue of timing – when do you think I should begin disciplining my child? As a new mom I could use some guidance and advice in this area.

As you know, children pass through a wide range of developmental phases during the first couple of years of life. This being the case, there are different sets of parental responses appropriate to a child’s behavior at each stage.

To begin with, it’s important to understand that “discipline” as we normally understand the term is meaningless where infants are concerned. Babies who are not yet mobile and whose lives consist primarily of eating and sleeping are too young to understand instruction of any kind. When they cry or fuss, it’s usually because they need something – to be fed, changed, comforted or rocked to sleep. What they require most from parents at this stage of development is consistent and loving attention and care. Accordingly, there should be no punishment for a child younger than 15 to 18 months old, regardless of circumstance. It is especially important to resist the temptation to resort to physical punishment. Hitting or shaking an infant can cause serious neurological damage, which can occur as the brain is slammed against the skull. Do not risk any kind of injury with a baby!

Once a child becomes capable of interacting with his environment, whether by crawling or simply by touching and manipulating objects within his reach, the need to control and redirect his behavior is more pressing. But it would still be a mistake to think of such control or redirection as a form of “teaching” or “correction.” At this stage, a child is still incapable of willful rebellion; most of the behavior that mom and dad tend to regard as “negative” or “troublesome” is simply an expression of his desire to explore. The parent’s major responsibility during this phase is to ensure the child’s safety. Generally speaking, this means establishing and enforcing boundaries within the home, whether by verbal reprimands, “child-proofing” measures, gates and barriers or other methods of physically separating a crawling infant from potential hazards.

The need for genuine discipline doesn’t usually arise until about midway through the child’s second year. At this time, boys and girls become capable of understanding what you’re telling them to do, and as a result they can very gently be held responsible for their behavior. A firm “no!” or a mild slap on the hand can be effective in certain situations, though on other occasions it may be far more helpful to impose a brief “time out” (two or three minutes at the most) or take away a favorite toy for a short period of time. Keep in mind that a child’s attention span and memory are extremely limited at this age, and that he will not be able to grasp the significance of long-term “punishments.” He can, however, begin to learn some basic lessons about boundaries and parameters in his relations with others and the world around him – for example, “no touch,” “no hit,” and “no bite.”

Through the next 18 months, you will gradually establish yourself as the benevolent boss if you can consistently mean what you say and say what you mean. Contrary to what you may have read in popular parenting literature, this firm but loving approach to child rearing will not harm a toddler or make him violent. It is most likely to produce a healthy, confident child.

If you feel a need to discuss these ideas at greater length, we’d like to encourage you to contact our Counseling department for a free over-the-phone consultation. Our counselors will be happy to discuss your questions with you.


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Focus on the Family Complete Guide to Baby & Child Care

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