Yes, You Can Punish a Toddler

When toddlers misbehave, it’s tough to explain things to them.

Sometimes they don’t listen. Sometimes they listen but don’t care, content to force the world to revolve around them.

All too often, parents chalk this up to toddlers being toddlers and accept the kids’ attitudes without trying to change anything. But that sets a dangerous precedent. Toddlers may not remember things we consider important, like the need to poop in the toilet or how to pronounce an “r” correctly. But if you let a young child set the standard for conduct, count on it — they’ll remember perfectly.

Far too many parents see their little tykes behaving like hellions and wonder whether the kids understand the words “stop” or “no.” Believe me, they understand. Their defiance of your instructions generally means they don’t believe you will enforce the rules.

So when you tell your 2-year-old to stop sticking paper clips in electrical sockets or jumping on the couch and she just giggles and continues her dangerous behavior, she has issued you a challenge. She’s testing you, and she wants to let you know who is in charge. If you would prefer to be in charge, take some steps now to establish that relationship.

Effective punishments

Many parents are reluctant to punish toddlers. Strategies like redirection can work, but only temporarily. Redirection may stop today’s hooliganism, but it won’t do anything about tomorrow’s behavior. If you don’t punish toddlers, you might as well give them carte blanche to set their own rules.

Of course, you can’t make a toddler write “I will not spill jelly on the floor” 100 times or ground her for a month. But you do have options. Here are three punishments that work for many toddlers:

* Timeout. Some toddlers have a sense of time, others don’t. Start with a short timeout, perhaps two or three minutes. Have the child sit in a corner, looking at the wall. Timeouts in a bedroom complete with toys are not a punishment. Be sure to explain why you are giving her the timeout.

* Denial of privileges. This doesn’t work for all toddlers, but try it before you dismiss it. If a 2-year-old misbehaves, try telling her that she can’t watch her favorite show or play with her beloved toy. She’ll enjoy the treat tomorrow if she does as she is told.

* Small swat. With toddlers, a single slap on the back of the hand or the butt can convey a world of meaning. Remember, the object is not to injure, but rather to make the girl uncomfortable. Toddlers like being comfortable, and the threat of a slap on the hand might be enough to forestall disobedience.

Every child reacts differently to punishments, and you may have to try a few before you find one that works. Alternatively, stick with the same punishment, but increase the length/severity to improve your results. Keep working on the punishments until you convince your toddler not to repeat her offense.

I’ll end with a warning: Your toddler will cry. It may break your heart to listen, and that is when you must demonstrate that you are the adult. Remember what I said about being in charge? Many parents lose the battle right here. But stand firm. By punishing poor behavior, you will keep the child safe and establish the parental authority you will desperately need in coming years. Despite the child’s anger, the world will not end when you administer a punishment.


Bob Sweet is a syndicated advice columnist and father of two. If you’d like to submit a parenting question to Bob, send it to [email protected]

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