My 18 month old son is proving to be a challenging one to discipline. Whenever he does something that we disapprove of, whether it is throwing his dinner on the floor or hitting us, we look him in the eye and speak to him in a stern voice. If the behavior is bad, we give him a timeout. His response is to laugh at us, and his behavior never improves. What are we doing wrong?
From: Anne, Acton, MA
(1) Your little guy is doing exactly what he's supposed to do at this age: he's testing cause and effect. "If I throw my food down, what happens? Ah, it falls and mom gets this funny voice and expression. What if I do it again? Does the same thing happen? No! It still falls, but mom gets another funny look!" His laughter? He's not laughing at you. He's laughing with you. He thinks you're in this together, that this is a game, a routine: FUN!
(2) Young children want our attention more than anything else, and they don't categorize it as positive and negative. To them, it's all the same. He's delighted because there's nothing he wants more than to be engaged with you.
(3) Forget about time-out. Time-out does not work for some children, especially at young ages, and then again after age 7. It never works if you over-use it.
Set age-appropriate limits that you can live with, and he can, too. You're setting your expectations too high to think a toddler will not throw food on the floor. So cover the floor with newspaper and then ignore him when he throws and/or drops food. Like magic -- well, OK, a few meals, give or take -- he'll lose interest in this behavior. Why? Because if you're not giving the behavior attention, it no longer works as a point of connection.
The other strategy for toddlers is to remove your attention. That's essentially what you're doing when you ignore the food-dropping but it works with other behaviors, too. If you're playing together on the floor and he starts to hit you, take hold of his arm, tell him firmly, "No hitting," and then abruptly stand up and say in a firm but matter-of-fact voice, "I can't play with you if you hit." Turn your back on him, leave the room, do whatever it takes to make your point. He'll be really angry so you need to learn to tolerate that anger (assuming, of course, that he's safe). When the tantrum runs its course, you can calmly sit back down and offer to try again. If he kicks again, you need to repeat -- and repeat and repeat -- the same behavior.
My book for parenting toddlers? "The Happiest Toddler on the Block," by Harvey Karp, MD.
The author is solely responsible for the content.