How do you discipline your child? by James Cooke

How do you discipline your child?

How and when do you start disciplining a toddler? There’s probably no firm answer to that question. As with many of the challenges that parenthood throws at you, it all depends on the individual child – you’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again, but all children are different.

Our son – we call him Beans – is approaching two and a half. He’s speaking in mostly full sentences and has a super cheeky personality. As with most kids his age, he likes to test his boundaries, pushing past the line of what’s acceptable to see what he can get away with. There have been countless incidents whereby he’s been told ‘no’, only to smile like a Cheshire Cat and go ahead with whatever he was about to do anyway – often something to do with climbing on the sofa or seeing how far he can throw whatever’s in his hand at given moment. These incidents tend to end when, after giving him five or six chances to stop, his mother or I intervene by picking him up and removing him from the situation. ‘Let’s come away from the sofa and do some drawing…’

But when is he old enough, or mature enough, for us to start instilling some form of punishment for wrongdoing? And what constitutes a punishable offence? He’ll need to start learning that some behaviour simply isn’t acceptable, yet he should feel free to express himself without fear of constant penalties. This is a part of parenting that can ultimately shape a child’s character. No pressure then!

Beans goes to a childminder four days a week while his mum and I work. He’s been going since he turned one and it’s an environment in which he has become extremely comfortable. He’s also incurred punishments in the form of timeouts from the childminder since he was about a year and a half. As parents who weren’t yet in the habit of discipline, we did wonder if he was too young to understand back then, but with several kids in her care, the childminder of course needs to discourage bad behaviour early.

So, when Beans recently thought it was funny one Sunday morning to start kicking his mum, he was told to stop and, when he persisted, was warned that if he carried on, he would get a timeout. Knowing what a timeout is, he stopped while we explained to him why kicking was bad and that he shouldn’t hurt people. All was good for about ten seconds or so, then he flashed that cheeky grin of his and kicked Mummy again.
‘Right,’ I said, taking him by the hand. ‘Timeout!’
We walked into the hallway and I sat him down on the bottom step.
‘Okay,’ I said, trying my best to sound like an actual authority figure. ‘You can stay there until I say so, and you think about what you did. You don’t kick people; it’s very naughty.’
I left him sat there, looking not too upset. Wandering back into the living room, my wife asked how long I was planning to leave him there, to which I answered, ‘Only a minute or so, just to get the point across.’
We never reached a full minute though. Maybe twenty seconds after I’d left Beans on the step – thirty at a push – the sound of small footsteps could be heard coming from the hallway. And then he emerged, the tiny toddler with his head held high, declaring: ‘Finished! All done now!’
‘Oh no you’re not,’ I replied, taking him by the hand again. ‘You were naughty and you’re staying in timeout until I tell you you’re finished.’
When I sat him down on the bottom step this time, he started crying. I felt a bit bad, leaving him there like that. Maybe some would call me soft. Still, I left him there and went back into the living room.
Looking concerned, my wife asked how long I was planning to leave him there this time.’
‘Only a minute again, just to make sure he understands that what he did was wrong.’
It was probably less than a minute before I went and let him off the step.
Life went back to normal for a few minutes and we started playing with Duplo. Then, Beans got an idea.
‘Daddy,’ he said, grabbing my hand. ‘Come this way!’
He led me out of the living room and into the hallway, where he let go of my hand, pushed me towards the stairs, and said, ‘Sit down!’ He then, turned and walked back into the living room, leaving me stood there, momentarily speechless.

I was a teenager when I’d started to truly question authority. My son had proven the entire concept to be nothing more than an illusion at the age of two. After a moment, I ran after him, picked him up and explained to him, while trying not to laugh at the pure cheek of it, that I’m the parent and he doesn’t give me timeouts. I give him timeouts when he’s naughty…that’s how it works, as flimsy and hollow as the whole thing may seem.

Thankfully we’ve not had too much trouble at home since then. Any potential incident brewing has been dealt with before bubbling over. It’s certainly helped that Bean has grasped the concept of Father Christmas this year and knows there are presents at stake. ‘Santa is watching’ has become a regular phrase – and an effective one at that. We’ve just got to be careful not to let the big red guy become some sinister Big Brother, always watching.

It’s difficult, figuring out how best to discipline a two-year-old. My earlier memories of receiving a punishment were corporal in nature. I’m sure the message sometimes got through to the little version of me and I turned out alright (I think), but it’s still not something I would employ myself. Not only do I not like the idea of my son fearing me, but many studies conclude that corporal punishment is detrimental to a child’s development and can actually lead to more bad behaviour. Studies have also linked corporal punishment to mental health problems and a lower IQ.

Ruling out a smacked bottom, it’s hard to know what to start with as a form of punishment for a toddler. While Beans has a solid daily routine, he still has no real concept of time, which rules out going to bed early. He’s too young to play outside without parental supervision, so we can’t ground him. Perhaps a ban on Peppa Pig for a set period of time might work? Although, again, without much concept of time, it may be a tricky one to enforce effectively. Timeouts seem to work, as does the warning of receiving one if he carries on with whatever he’s doing. Sometimes I try issuing an empty threat, but he’s already seeing through those. Case in point: in the run-up to Christmas I threatened to eat his advent calendar chocolate if he kept misbehaving at breakfast. I feigned opening the door to his calendar and eating the chocolate when he continued, to which his reaction was a shake of the head. ‘Pretending,’ he said, followed by a laugh.

It’s a learning process for all three of us: mother, father and child. For the most part, we love the fact that he’s finding his way with tongue in cheek, but we understand that discipline is an essential part of the parenting process, teaching right from wrong and allowing the little dude to learn from his mistakes.

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