How old can you start disciplining children?


My sister and I both have young children. She believes that toddlers are too young to discipline, but I think it’s important to establish rules and consequences early. What do you think?


Discipline is important for all children, including babies and toddlers. Disciplining your toddler means teaching and protecting your child, both at once. Your goal is to keep her safe by teaching her self-control and the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. Discipline does not mean punishment.

There are various ways to discipline a young child. You will probably use all of them at some time or another:

  • Express your disapproval. Go to your child, look him straight in the eyes, and say “No” or “Stop.” Tell him what he should not do and why. Tell your child what the consequences will be if he does it again.
  • Give timeouts. A timeout can be used with children as young as 1 year old. It involves taking a “break” away from a difficult situation and spending time in a less appealing place.
  • Use natural consequences. For example, if she throws her food off her plate, she will not have any more to eat. If she tears the pages out of a book, she will no longer be able to read it.
  • Use logical consequences. Some behaviors have no immediate or obvious natural consequences. In these cases, set consequences that are logically related to the misbehavior. For example, tell your child that if she does not pick up her toys before bed, she will not be allowed to play with them the next day.
  • Ignore harmless behaviors. Decide which issues are worth a battle and which are not. Consider ignoring behaviors that are harmless, such as temper tantrums or whining.

What about spanking? Studies have shown that it isn’t as effective in changing long-term behaviors as positive reinforcement and other forms of discipline. In fact, spanking may actually make kids more aggressive in the future.

Once I was the on-call doctor for a physician group that included a pediatrician. A mother called at 2 a.m. about a problem with her toddler. This is the conversation that followed:

Me: “How can I help you?”

Mother: “My son just set his mattress on fire!”

Me: “How badly is he burned?”

Mother: “He’s not burned at all.”

Me: “So how can I help you?”

Mother: “Tell me, doctor. Do you think I should spank him?”

You may think I made up that story, but you can’t make this stuff up. It really happened. I suggested that she discipline him in any way she felt was appropriate — if she wanted to protect him, her, the other kids, the home and neighborhood.

Final piece of advice: Always try to catch your child being good. Look for positive behaviors and compliment them. That shows your child that positive behaviors are the best way to get your attention and make you proud.