Two Paths in Toddler Discipline

IMG_8901Dear Mister Two-And-A-Half,

You, middle child, you head-butt people because you like it when you are head-butted. You roar at babies because you like being roared at. You push your sister over sometimes because you like being pushed over. You are rough and tumble.

You also listen. “You like being raaaaar’d at, don’t you, Alexander?” I ask. “YEAH!” you say. “I think your sister likes it better when you click your tongue at her like this: Click click click”. And you click click click. She smiles and coos. You smile at both of us. “She falls too fast if you push her back like that. You have to hold her head. See?” and I hold her head and push her over. You watch and you do the same thing, both of you giggling like mad.

It’s hard in the moment sometimes to recognize that the things you do at two and a half are not meant to be scary or hurtful. I can’t see inside your head, and sometimes what an adult sees is that a larger child is being rough with a baby. Sometimes what an adult sees is the need to protect the baby (naturally) and they forget that YOU are still a baby too, and that you need to see, to learn, to understand that there are other ways to do the things that you want to do.

If I yell at you, you will just learn that I yell.
If I punish you, you will just learn to avoid your sister.
If I always keep the two of you apart, you’ll never  be close.

So as hard as it can be sometimes, I breathe. I ask myself “what is it that you need to learn right now?” and I show you.. With the understanding that I may need to show you many times before you’ll understand.

Sometimes I have to pick your sister up, or pick you up to keep both of you safe and happy.

Usually, though, you learn so quick and remember so well.

Sometimes I think about that path not taken. I think about how I could simply consider your actions malicious. I could yell. I could be angry. I could point at a corner in anger and isolate you when in your heart you think that you are simply being playful and doing something that you enjoy. I could tell you “NO! Don’t do that!” repeatedly without telling you what you could do instead. I could choose to be angry, ineffective, vindictive, and attribute knowledge and intentions to your actions. I could push you away and feed the jealousy that you sometimes feel, and pigeon-hole you into the negative emotions and behaviors rather than encouraging you to enjoy being positive and loving.

I don’t want to simply stop you from doing certain things. I want to teach you how to do all the things that you need to know how to do in order to be a close and trusted friend to your sister. To teach you how to be as awesome a big brother to her as your big brother is to you.

There are two paths to discipline with toddlers: To discourage, or to teach. I try to choose “teach” wherever I can.

<3 Mama

13 thoughts on “Two Paths in Toddler Discipline

  1. I really needed to read this today! Thanks! It’s hard sometimes to choose the right path, but this just reminded me why it’s so important.

  2. I bring my little 3 day old Gracelyn home today to my almost two year old. This could not have come at a better time as I weep over the sadness I know my son will feel in losing a part of his mommy to someone else. Thank you so much for this.

    1. Kim-

      Don’t weep too much. :) Yes, he loses your undivided attention but he gets a new best friend. It’s a change, not a loss. You’ll find that your lap is big enough for two and you just need to learn new ways of holding both of them close. It’s a big adjustment! I remember going from one child to two, it’s harder than going from two to three. You’ll learn all sorts of new ways of showing and sharing your love for both of the little ones.

      What helped me most was giving the baby my body (breastfeeding and baby wearing) and giving my older child my heart and head through play and book reading and side snuggling while nursing the baby. I did this the second time around as well. If you don’t have a baby carrier I highly recommend getting a wrap, a sling, a mei tai, an ergo or some other form of ergonomic baby carrier that you can possibly learn to nurse in. (If you’re breastfeeding)

      Congratulations on your little Gracelyn!


  3. What if they are doing it without wanting to play? What if the two year old is teething and overtired from not being able to sleep and super cranky? What do you do when you say “Oops, I bet you didn’t see baby boy. Careful feet please.” and Miss two and 3 months tries to step on him five times in the next minute? And that is only the first just instance of the morning- there are dozens more! And not related to baby- but when Miss Two hurts and is tired and so only wants things she can’t have- nurse constantly, be carried without me sitting down constantly, eat sweets and juice (which I don’t even have in the house!). It seems like she is spending more time out than time in right now!

    1. Brittany,

      That’s different. I have those days too. In fact most days are mixed up with a little bit of those times. Alexander is going through a period of jealousy right now and he wants to wear his sister’s clothes (so I let him), he wants to drink his sister’s milk (so I let him have some in a cup since he doesn’t nurse anymore). He wants to ride in the wrap (so I let him). Sometimes he doesn’t know he’s jealous, he just knows that he doesn’t nap anymore, he doesn’t get cooed over for the same reasons as his sister.

      It’s HARD not to get grouchy when he’s grouchy. Especially when he’s REALLY REALLY ANGRY and I pick him up to try to love on him and he hits me because he’s angry. Two’s are full of tumult.

      I don’t say “oops you didn’t see the baby” unless I think that’s his reason. When he does it on purpose I acknowledge that. WOW Alexander, you’re angry. You’re so angry you want to hit and hurt. That’s so sad. Do you want to hit my hand?” and I let him hit my hand. (Hands are acceptable places for hitting- he can do high fives, etc.) You seem jealous. Do you need to a hug? No? Do you need to read a book? Yeah? let’s read a book now.” Sometimes it doesn’t work and he just needs to let out all the upset and anger. Then we can move on together. There’s really not much escaping it- toddlers can work up a lot of tension VERY QUICKLY and let it out in outbursts. I find that time-outs compound the issue, and I try to do time ins instead, and will hold him and hug him while he has his outburst.

      How old is the baby? Different things work at different points in time.


      1. They are 6 months and 26 months. Usually I do time ins too (at least for the last month or so), but this past week has been so rough! Its not just the baby and jealousy, but everything! Yes you can take your water on the carpet, just be careful. She walks to the carpet and dumps it. And it is just water- I know it doesn’t matter. But it is so frustrating when she does the exact opposite staring into my eyes. I do really well keeping my temper but its like she wants me to get mad. If i don’t get mad she dumped the water then she will hit her brother. If I ask her not to do that and try to move on, she pulls the dogs hair. I do time outs right now just to get a break. We read books three times today for a half an hour each time. I carried her in the sling… Let her nurse a little extra. Its just these darn teeth! I like the hit my hand thing. That might help! We are reading books about emotions so she might get it.

        1. Oh- it WAS an accident. Thats the crazy part. She had nurshed and everyone was full and happy. Early in the morning so no one was tired. We were jumping on my bed and being goofballs. She accidently stepped on his hand. I gave her a gentle reminder. I wasn’t upset and neither was she. If I understood why she wanted the negative attention she got while trying to step on him, even after I was restraining her, I would be able to deal with it better. I just don’t get her right now! The baby is an easy baby- sleeps in his crib for the past couple of weeks and plays on his own.

          1. :) It’s age appropriate and is actually the precursor to judgement and reason and good behavior and empathy and all that wonderful stuff. (Testing limits). All kids go through it. It’s hard! They are trying to figure out if the action always gets the same reaction. They lack impulse control, are wildly curious, are learning language and boundaries and independence.

            I’m not bothering with time outs this time around. I find them to just create more issues. Things take time outs (ok, that toy is being used to hit, that toy is going in time out)

            I use redirection and positive engagement (engage kid in a task) a lot. But two’s seem to just build up enough stress and frustration that they need to vent through meltdowns here and there. I don’t view them as misbehavior, rather I view them as the explosive venting of energy that lets them come back to normal. Viewing it that way helps me be fine with tantrums.

            Most tantrums come from boredom, jealousy, frustration, overtiredness, hunger, overstimulation, or too much sugar. So I try to avoid those things actively. My middlechild is 30 months and my baby is 9 months so it’s a similar age spread.

          2. Thank you! I love objects taking a time out! Two new strategies to try- I knew I commented for a reason!

          3. One more question- what do you do when the toddler’s letting off steam doesn’t help them come back to normal and they refuse to be engaged in a task/activity. Some days there is just no distracting her! Usually she wants something that’s either impossible or she can’t verbalize then won’t let go. Usually I just try to leave the house which often works but its not always possible with my little guy.

          4. I do intense time-ins. Easier now that the baby sits and can play independently. I’ll put her down and carry the toddler around and love on him and coo to him like he’s an itty bitty, and he’ll mellow out and get tired of it quickly and want to be a big kid again.

            Everyone has bad days though. If he is having a rough day I’ll tell him I’m going to hold him and rock or dance and that he can cry if he needs to. He’ll usually have a loud screachy crying meltdown and cling to me or push me away and then cling to me. When he’s done he feels a bit better.

            I try to figure out if he has a need that is not being met. Sleep/different food/attention.. too much TV too much sugar.. Someone or something he is missing.. And I try to meet the need.

    1. Everyone makes mistakes now and then. The key to it is when you make a mistake, ask yourself what you can do differently in a situation the next time. When you have a plan in place for dealing with the randoms, you deal much better. And when you get into the habit of thinking gently it’s automatic. :)

Leave a Reply