Monday, March 5, 2012

Peaceful Toddler Discipline: "Take me to the limit!"

While I strive to be a gentle parent, peaceful discipline—particularly, maintaining a calm, patient demeanor—is one of the most challenging aspects of parenting for me. As a person who was raised by parents with a very different philosophy of discipline (spanking), I've not had many personal experiences with or examples of this approach to discipline.
I do my very best, but I know I always have room for improvement, especially in this area of my parenting. This is one of the many reason why I'm happy to host today's guest post from Amy of Toddler in Tow, which is all about peacefully disciplining a toddler: using gentle, directive language, consistency, and intention. Read to the bottom to learn more about today's talented guest blogger.

"...put me on a highway – And show me a sign. And take it to the limit one more time..."

I am really on a music lyrics roll . . . but truly, imagine driving on a highway. There are two major influences from which we take our cues: Traffic signs, and the other drivers. It's the same way for children when they are learning about natural consequences, social behaviors, and appropriate and moral "do"s and "don't"s. They watch us (parents and other caregivers) for consistent signs about what to do and how to act, and they gauge how they're doing by the responses that they get from other children (the "other drivers" in our highway metaphor).

Just as a driver can go from pleasant to just plain P-O-ed when another driver cuts him off, tailgates, or speeds by, so can children go from pleasant to aggravated when confronted with the behavior of a playmate. And just as we tend to follow other drivers to choose the speed to use (ignoring highway signs a lot of the time), so children will follow the behaviors of other children or family members (ignoring direction from their caregiver/parent).

These are natural and developmentally appropriate social behaviors. And when we realize that we adults engage in them pretty much everyday, it starts to feel more natural to discipline by allowing our children to follow their natural instincts and showing them by modeling the behaviors we want them to learn, the signs that will help them navigate. It is important for children to be "put on this highway" to sort out the way to behave appropriately by gauging their progress or digress by the reactions of the people and children around them. It is our responsibility as parents to supply them with plenty of models (or "signs" if you will) that show them the way to take and allow them to find their way.

I was asked recently what my take is on "setting limits" with my child. I responded that limits are important, but often parents get caught up in "enforcing" limits instead of living by them themselves, and that's where the problem lies. The issue that gentle parenting takes with "limits" and "consequences" is not to say that they don't exist and shouldn't be discussed or used to lead children. It is in the way that limits are used in the home.

Take Abbey, my two year old, for example: Abbey and the issue of climbing in our house. She will climb anything she can, and does. Obviously, we want to curb this behavior and instill in Abbey a respect for the nature of things and what different items are and are not used for. I know that this will take time, and I empathize with Abbey on her perspective. She needs to climb. She wants to climb whatever she can find. But I set limits on what is and is not OK to climb on, and I delineate the limit when she crosses it. For example, she likes to climb up into the computer chair in the den (whether or not anyone is sitting in it) and jump in the seat. She does the same thing with the sofa. And the coffee table, and sometimes the dining room table. (Obviously, not an appropriate behavior.) We don't act like monkeys in the house – it's not safe. So what do I do? Pull her down and say "no!"? Put her in time-out when she refuses to come down from the furniture? Give her a certain number of warnings and then spank for disobedience?

None of these traditional discipline approaches does anything to get to the root of the limit: Jumping on furniture is not safe, and not respectful of the nature of the piece of furniture. But there is a method that does. It takes a little more patience and empathy on my part than warnings and chastisement and shaming would, but it works beautifully.

Peaceful Toddler Discipline Technique #7
"Take me to the limit!"
When your child does something dangerous or disrespectful, use empathy and respectful language to guide him to the appropriate behavior by stating the limit and helping him follow through.

  1. Bring the child's attention to the behavior. I ask Abbey, "Are you supposed to be [climbing on the chair/jumping on the sofa/lying on the table]?" This brings the child's attention to the situation at hand and makes them take account of what they are doing. Instead of hearing "No! Get down from there this instant!" and becoming scared and withdrawn, a question will instead bring a child into the situation at hand (because we all know that children oftentimes do things without even thinking about them first) and get their attention.
    Side note: Also, as the number of times that this technique is used to set limits increases, the child will learn to answer this question for his or herself. Sometimes, Abbey will acknowledge her misbehavior as soon as I ask her about it, and discontinue the behavior on her own. Doesn't happen every time, but I can tell that she is starting to put the limits I set for our family into her state of mind.

  2. State the limit, using collective language (instead of "You are not allowed to..." which makes the child feel shamed and helpless) I tell Abbey, "We don't climb on the chair; we sit on the chair." or "We don't stand on the coffee table. It is dangerous!" Using the collective "we" instead of "you" tells the child that she is an important part of the family unit and that everyone in the family lives by the same limits. This helps establish a healthy sense of self and position within the family unit, instead of shaming a child and making her feel inferior.

  3. Give the child two options of acceptable behaviors. My go-to is: "Do you want to come down off the [chair/coffee table] or would you like mommy to help you?" But you can use whatever language feels right to you, as long as you are not shaming the child and giving two choices of what to do next that are simple and acceptable to you. Usually Abbey will assert her staple "baby do!" and come down herself. Other times, she chooses to have me remove her from the furniture. Either way, she has respected the limit I have set, and we have avoided a tantrum. Choices are lovely ways to guide your child to appropriate behaviors.

  4. Repeat the limit. I say "Thank you, Abbey! Remember: we don't [climb on the chair/jump on the sofa/lie on the dinner table]. We [sit on the chair/relax on the sofa/eat at the dinner table]." Reinforcing the appropriate behavior is a wonderful tool, but not all situations lend themselves to it. Keep in mind your child's attention span at the moment. If you're at the playground or on your way through a store, there are probably too many distractions to keep your child's attention through your whole statement, so those would be times to keep it simple and quick.

There will also be times when tantrums erupt (or with older children, when attitude ensues!). This is a time for empathy and guidance. Give a hug. Listen. Use a toy or tool like a "crying jar" to get back to feeling calm purposefully and lovingly. 

And when it happens again (even in it's only seconds later!), continue to use this method to diffuse the dangerous or disrespectful behavior (whichever it is at the time)... and set the limit for the family to follow. Just make sure that you and your spouse are held accountable for the limits as well. There are times I have to ask my husband to respect limits, and times when he has to remind me of my own rules! You see, it's normal for our toddlers to push limits and guide their behaviors by the behaviors of others. We do it too!

I hope that this look into limit setting helps you understand more why empathy and respectful discipline tactics work so much better than dictating rules and punishing for disobedience to form a moral and well rounded child.

Here are some more resources on gentle, positive limit setting:

Self Discipline: Setting Limits - from Aid to Life

Setting Limits with Young Children - from Hand in Hand parenting

And maybe you'll want to check out the other gentle discipline topics I've written about:

You say it Best - When You Say Nothing at All

You've Gotta Have Faith


Keeping It Cool

The Golden Rule Ruleth

Monkey See, Monkey Do

About today's guest blogger, Amy:

Amy is a Coast Guard wife and full-time mother to two enthusiastic and lovely children, Abigail (3.5) and Joseph (10 months). In addition to mothering and blogging, she enjoys socializing with friends, meeting new people, sewing cloth diapers, knitting, and dedicating herself to practicing compassion, baby-wearing, mom-to-mom breastfeeding support, and the study of human lactation and sociology. She currently blogs at Toddler In Tow about the experiences of a natural parenting military family, and is a contributing writer for The Natural Parents Network and

Today's post was edited from a previous version originally published at Toddler in Tow.


  1. Great post. Very insightful! Thanks for guesting on Amy's blog.

  2. I love this, Amy. And honestly, it can work into the preschool years as well. Kieran has done much more to test limits as a 3 and 4yo than he ever did as a toddler.


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