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Punishment and Toddlers: What Doesn't Work

Find tips on what does and what doesn't work when punishing your toddler.

Punishment and Toddlers: What Doesn't Work

What punishments are appropriate for a one-year-old? Let's take a look at two strategies that don't work very well with young toddlers:

  • Time-outs (separating your child from the site and circumstances of his misbehavior by putting him in a specially designated "time-out chair") work more effectively with older children than with early toddlers. Your child probably doesn't like to sit in one place for more than a second. This makes time-outs very hard for you to enforce. If you do try using time-outs and your child gets up from the time-out chair, gently but firmly return him to the chair—or ignore him as he tries to win your attention. Go about your business until the time-out is up (the standard rule of thumb is one minute for every year of your child's age). When the time-out is over, remind your child why you've put him in time-out.
  • Spanking or hitting your child—to stop him from hurting others, for example—makes no sense at all. Put yourself in your one-year-old's place and try to figure out the logic behind eye-for-an-eye punishment: I can't hit because it hurts people, so you hit me and hurt me. Wait, that can't be right. It makes no sense.

If your aim is to steer your early toddler toward "good" behavior and away from "bad" behavior, neither time-outs nor spankings will do the trick. In fact, a one-year-old learns very little from any kind of punishment. Your toddler doesn't really understand the concept of punishment for unacceptable behavior. He can't yet make the connection between his own actions and your reactions.

Because your child at this age has just the barest grasp (if any) of the links between cause and effect or action and consequence, it makes no sense to threaten or spank him or withdraw pleasures or treats as punishment. Your toddler won't see these punishments as a consequence of his own actions. He will think only that you're being unfair, arbitrary, and cruel. Such punishments won't teach your child anything either, because by the next time a similar situation comes up, he will have long forgotten that he got punished for doing the same thing last time. So punishment will have no positive impact whatsoever on your one-year-old.

On the flip side of the coin, it makes no sense to bribe or bargain with your child to get him to behave. Your child cannot keep promises or uphold bargains. What's a promise to your one-year-old? It's his saying, "okay," to anything you say in get what he wants. But your toddler's verbal assent doesn't mean that he will then keep his end of the bargain—or even appreciate that he has made any sort of promise. Even if he does, when the time comes for your child to keep his promise, he won't remember having promised anything.

Breaking promises, however, is not a moral failing for a toddler. Your child does not yet have the ability to make or keep promises. In agreeing to a bargain, your toddler had no intention of being deceitful. Your child did not set out to trick you. He just wanted you to give him what he wanted or let him do what he wanted to do. And agreeing with you seemed to be the only way to get what he wanted.

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