A child under two simply needs constant watching. He can be distracted rather than reasoned with. Saying “no, no” to issues of safety is the beginning of limit setting.
Children between the ages of two and three have such strong developmental needs to explore, touch, and do things for themselves that they have difficulty sticking to limits. Because their immediate needs are so great and because they focus so completely on the here and now, they usually don’t realize they’re doing something wrong, even if they’ve been told many times. When reprimanded, children this age often will look surprised and hurt.
In order to set limits for these young ages, parents (or caregivers) have to stay fairly close by, offer frequent reminders, get involved with the child, and always be aware of what she’s doing. When children aren’t supervised, they lose sight of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. If a child is playing inappropriately, her parents have to be right there to remove her from the situation and then involve her in something else. “You can play here on the cushions.” Offering an alternative often works because young children can be easily distracted by interesting objects and activities.
Children three and under often reject limits and say “no,” not only because they want to continue their activities, but because they’re asserting their independence and learning what they can do. And sometimes parents set limits unnecessarily because they underestimate what a young child can do. A three-year-old who wanted to hold a screwdriver was told, “No, it’s too sharp.” But when she protested, her father decided to let her try as long as she sat next to him so he could supervise. She was happy, and her father realized that he could relax some of the limitations he’d set.
When a four-or five-year-old misbehaves, parents may momentarily withdraw their love and attention. Since a child wants parental approval, she feels hurt when she’s criticized for doing something wrong. She can’t separate her action from herself and feels that she’s being rejected for who she is, not for what she has done. The removal of parental acceptance sometimes motivates a four-or five year-old to change her behavior and to run to her parents for a hug after she’s been disciplined.
Verbal limit-setting and distraction work with four and five-year olds, but since they have a better understanding of consequences than younger children do, they also respond to other methods of disciplining. Connecting a restriction to an activity works because a four-or five-year-old can understand the relationship: “If you want to ride your bike, you have to stay in front of the house,” or “If you want to play outside, you have to keep your jacket on.”
However, it’s not always possible to find a connection. If a child hits her brother, what should her parents take away? Parents sometimes remove something unrelated, such as a toy, privilege, or dessert. Although it’s unwise to make dessert a focus of power, many parents find that their child changes her behavior when threatened with the loss of sweets for a meal. She does this not because she understands her parents’ point, but because she wants to avoid the punishment.
When taking something away or using any other form of discipline, parents should be sure the consequences come soon after the misbehavior. This gives the child a chance to connect her actions with their consequences, and it ensures that parents will follow through. Often, when parents tell a child in the morning that she’ll be punished in the evening, she knows that they may forget or change their minds.
One mother, eating lunch in a fast food restaurant with her five-year-old, said, “If you keep misbehaving you’re going to bed at 7:00 tonight.” When the child continued acting up, the mother said, “All right. Now you’re going to bed at 6:30.” The punishment seemed so far away and so drastic to the child that she felt helpless and continued misbehaving. Instead of making a distant threat, the mother could have tried distracting her daughter, firmly telling her what to stop doing or warning her they’d have to leave the restaurant. Then the child could have made the connection between her behavior and the consequences.
A disciplining method that some parents find successful with three to five-year-olds is counting: “By the time I count to five, I want you indoors,” or “I’ll count to ten while you get ready for your bath.” This actually works well because it offers a limit, a warning, and a bit of time, although if the technique is overused it becomes ineffective.
Sometimes (but not always) “time-outs” work. However, if a “time-out” doesn’t help your child change her behavior, don’t use this method. If parents use “time-out,” they can tell their child she can get off the step or chair when she’s ready to play nicely. “Time-out” should only last as long as is necessary for her to calm down and change her behavior.
When a four-or five-year-old becomes angry and aggressive, her parents can set limits, change the situation, or try to distract her. If she doesn’t calm down, they should firmly say, “You may not do this!” Along with a firm tone, it’s okay to give THAT LOOK that conveys, “I mean it!” Gradually, a stern look and a slow shake of your head should deter your child from negative behavior.