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Discipline and Boundaries

BANG! “Okay mister, that’s it! I’ve told you not to bang on the TV! What if you break it? TVs cost a lot of money, you know, and Mommy had to work very hard to buy that TV. Oh, look at the kitten!” BANG! “Jimmy, I told you—that’s it! You know better than that! Why don’t you play with your train set? When we get to the park well get a cookie if you’re a good boy and—” BANG!

When infants become toddlers, around the first year, they start exploring more complex matters. Some of those matters are topological or geographical: what spaces look like, how it feels to climb over something, or what it’s like to squeeze behind it. Another object of exploration is you. Early on, you become the primary experiment in Jimmy’s emotional laboratory. As his range of motion expands, he determines that it is being limited by larger people who don’t wear diapers and tell him that some of his actions can be dangerous, inappropriate, or naughty. Consequently, Jimmy attempts to assert his individuality and independence by exploring your resilience.

I use the term laissez faire often in this book, but you won’t see it in this section. Discipline is hard work, and it’s one area of child care that will not take care of itself, much as you might like it to. You have to stand up to your kids early and consistently. One of the phrases you’ll hear over and over again from parents of young children is “the terrible twos.” Throughout this book, I have said that many widely held beliefs about parenting are myths. “The terrible twos,” I regret to inform you, is not one of those. Toddlers rebel against rules in unpredictable, hilarious, and supremely stubborn ways, and if you don’t handle them properly, you may soon have a bona fide revolutionary on your hands.

Preventing the Terrible Twos

The best way to prevent the terrible twos is to counteract the terrible ones. If you watch closely, you can see the early signs of a rambunctious toddler around twelve to fifteen months. That’s when you should begin setting up boundaries. In order to understand how, you must first realize that Jimmy won’t listen to reason. Rational explanations may be soothing to you as a parent. They may remind you of your own ability to maintain control during a difficult situation. To Jimmy, however, a rational explanation sounds like gibberish. Why would he not topple the trash can if he feels like it? Because you have the means to enforce the rule, that’s why. This sounds like despotism, and it may very well be, but it’s your only way to set house rules. Someone’s going to be the despot, so it might as well be you. The earlier you start implementing boundaries, the smoother and more seamless this part of his development will be. To help you in this task, I’ve provided case studies that reflect the challenges you’re going to encounter.

Case Study #1

Let’s start with the simplest case: Jimmy is playing with something that’s either dangerous, fragile, noisy, or all three.

1 | Jimmy is banging a glass on the table.

2 | You tell him not to.

3 | Jimmy stops.

4 | Two minutes later, Jimmy is banging the glass again, and now he’s looking at you.

What to do

Take the glass away from him

If he has a fit, let him.

If he starts hitting you, treat it like inappropriate behavior, as described below, in Case Study #4.

What not to do

Don’t waste your time on “Don’t do that” rhetoric; it quickly becomes motivaion to touch things anyway

Don’t launch into lengthy explanations about the inappropriateness of his actions

As soon as he can move around, Jimmy wants to explore everything around him: every switch, every knob, and every latch. This is obviously an extremely important developmental stage; he is unlocking the secrets of the physical world. But it can also be dangerous or expensive, as those switches and knobs are connected to stoves, lights, stereos, computers, and other delicate pieces of equipment. Place expensive things out of his reach. Get locks for knobs and safety latches for toilet seats.

By limiting Jimmy’s opportunities to get into trouble or destroy things, you limit your own reactions and his opportunities to display oppositional or contrary behavior. However, no matter how resourcefully you Jimmy-proof your house, there will still be occasions when you can’t physically limit access to certain appliances or other forbidden items. For what to do in those situations, consult Case Study #4.

Case Study #2

This slightly more complicated situation illustrates when Jimmy does not want to do what you want him to do.

It’s a crisp winter day, and you’re getting ready to take Jimmy out.

1 | You want to put his coat on.

2 | Jimmy doesn’t want his coat on.

3 | You tell Jimmy he needs a coat.

4 | Jimmy does not let you put on his coat.


When it’s time to leave, you:

1 | Pin him down.

2 | Put the coat on.

3 | Go out.

What Not to do

Don’t spend half an hour discussing the need for a jacket.

Don’t bribe him.

Don’t talk while you’re putting the coat on him.

Don’t scream

Don’t get upset.

Don’t laugh.

Keep it simple, keep it short, and keep it stern. If you introduce any kind of playfulness into the situation, even negative playfulness, Jimmy will begin to enjoy the battle of wills, and he has much more time to waste on these battles than you do. As he gets slightly older (over eighteen months), there is an interesting variation on this strategy. After a few attempts to put on his jacket, you can simply say, “Suit yourself. Let’s go.” This allows Jimmy to experience directly the consequences of his actions, and a few minutes later, after he’s discovered how cold it is outside, he’ll put his coat on himself (or ask you for help).

Case Study #3

Before we get to the real deal, let’s consider one more classic scenario: Jimmy rejects his food.

1 | You and Jimmy are sitting at the table.

2 | You place his favorite meal on the tray.

3 | Jimmy throws the whole plate on the floor.


1 | The meal is now over.
Take him out of his chair.

2 | Put him down.

3 | The next meal service is snack time, in two hours.

What Not to do

Don’t serve him more food now.

Don’t serve him more food ten minutes later.

Don’t insist he eat

Don’t get upset.

After three of these cycles, Jimmy will understand very quickly that when he throws his food overboard he gets hungry.

Case Study #4

I saved the best for the last. The most challenging situation is when Jimmy does something you don’t want him to do and you can’t remove the object of his interest the way you could in Case Study #1.

1 | Jimmy slaps your computer.

2 | You tell him to stop.

3 | Jimmy slaps the computer again.

4 | You tell Jimmy in a level tone: “Stop banging on the computer.”

5 | Jimmy slaps the computer again.


1 | Since you can’t move the computer, you have to move Jimmy. Put him in a place where it will be impossible for him to return to the scene of the crime. His crib is an excellent option.

2 | Leave him in there for a couple of minutes. Whether he cries, sleeps, plays, or settles down for a nap isn’t important. What is important is that he gets a chance to chill out without you around to distract him or give him attention.

3 | When the time is over, go pick him up, even if he’s still crying.

4 | Put him down, send him off to play with no discussion of what happened, and move on. You’ve made your point.

5 | If he starts slapping the computer again, repeat the cycle without any warning; i.e., don’t say “Do you want to go back to your crib?”

What Not to do

Don’t get into lengthy explanations on how expensive the computer is

Don’t attempt to distract him with another activity. It will work at first, but as Jimmy figures out your technique, you’ll end up spending hours developing new distractions before you butt heads again anyway

When the time is over, go pick him up, even if he’s still crying.

Don’t give him a hug after you pick him up. The only thing he’ll remember is that banging on the computer equals hug.

Don’t apologize, and don’t make him apologize. He’s not sorry, and he doesn’t know what apologizing means.

Don’t scream, scold, or do anything that will give him a reason to associate his bad behavior with either a positive or negative attention.

Real questions from real parents
Isn’t Jimmy going to develop a negative association with his crib?
Don’t worry about the crib becoming associated with punishment. First of all, this is not a punishment. You’re actually helping him by putting him in a place where he feels safe and cozy, as opposed to, say, a dark closet. Second, if you put him in a place where he could escape and come back to bang on the computer, you’d end up in a power struggle, which would undermine your efforts and produce the wrong effect entirely.

Couldn’t we use his high chair?

You could, but he wouldn’t be removed from the situation, which is what he needs in order to chill out.

How about the corner?

It’s humiliating, he won’t stay there, and you’ll end up chasing him around.

How about sitting on the sofa?

It’s not humiliating, but otherwise the same things apply: He won’t stay there, and you’ll end up chasing him around.

Out in Public

All these methods apply when you’re in the privacy of your home. If you’re outside, do damage control. If Jimmy is being inappropriate, strap him into his stroller, get moving, and let him wail for a few minutes while you roll along in silence. This may stir some attention from passersby, but you’ll stir up even more attention if you argue and reason with him for half an hour. Unless you refrain from comment, he’ll quickly learn how to profit from the fact that you’re hesitant to let him cry because you don’t want strangers to think you’re some kind of child abuser.

Parents often laugh and tell me they’ve used the techniques described above to train their puppies. Indeed, this is very similar. Your dog only listens to you because he knows you’re bigger and stronger, and a source of food and shelter. By providing repetitive and predictable responses that don’t turn into increased attention, you can suppress your dog’s inappropriate behaviors and encourage his appropriate ones. Young kids are the same way; once boundaries have been integrated, life becomes easy or at least easier. You won’t be locked in a permanent power struggle.

This is not to say that Jimmy won’t try a few tricks. But after a while, he’ll be able to foresee the entire disciplinary process, and that foresight will make shenanigans much less enticing to him. He simply won’t bother slapping your new laptop again after you tell him not to. And just like your dog, he’ll feel loved and cared for.

How to Treat the Terrible Twos

If you’ve established boundaries properly, these kinds of discipline issues should be largely settled by the time Jimmy is two. At that age, testing and oppositional behavior should have markedly diminished or disappeared. If not, there are a few possibilities: Either Jimmy is experiencing a late burst of contrariness, or you may have been inconsistent in enforcing boundaries. There’s no cause for panic.

Here’s how you can regain control.

Case Study #5

1 | Jimmy hits Lucy.

2 | You tell him not to, or else he will be put in his room.

3 | Jimmy hits her again.


1 | Without any discussion, put Jimmy in his room for a few minutes.

2 | When the time is up, open the door and let him out.

I recommend that you choose your battles. Only engage Jimmy on the most essential issues, and let the little things slide. If you discipline him twenty times a day, the process will lose its effect.

What Not to do

Don’t get overly angry.

Don’t obscure the discipline with explanation.

Don’t lecture him on how cute Lucy is and why he should love her.

This discipline plan could get complicated. Jimmy is now able to open a door and escape from a room. If he does attempt an escape, your only—admittedly unpleasant—alternative is to lock the door while he’s in there. If he hits Lucy again, put him in the room again, and this time you can proceed according to plan. I guarantee you won’t have to lock it the second time, because he’ll know you mean business.

You may balk at the idea of turning Jimmy’s room into a high-security detention center for a fairly common infraction, but you have to realize that if you tell Jimmy to stay in a room and he escapes instantly, you undermine your credibility, and your disciplinary actions become meaningless. And if you resort to other tactics—holding the door shut with your hand or carrying him back into the room every ten seconds—all you’re doing is initiating a power struggle, and he likes that. He’s getting your undivided attention, and even if it has some negative aspects, it’s still attention.

In Tribeca where I live, many of us live in converted factory lofts with open rooms (i.e., no walls or doors). Because of the simple fact that some parents have been physically unable to remove their kids during power struggles, I have seen the boundary-setting phase drag on much longer than usual. If this describes your situation, find a safe and reassuring spot in your house where you can place Jimmy for a couple of minutes when you need to implement boundaries. It should be a place he can’t escape from, such as an area confined with child gates.

After ten consistent days of this regimen I guarantee that your life and Jimmy’s will be much more pleasant. Although he’ll still have plenty of moments when he affirms his will and personality, the day won’t be one long permanent struggle. If you’re inconsistent, however, you’ve probably made things worse, and I’ll see you in the next section. Read on.

How to Treat the Terrible Threes and Fours and . . .

You have no idea how many parents of four-year-olds come to me complaining that their child is difficult to handle, hits other kids at school, and has very little tolerance for rules or frustration. Invariably, a teacher or doctor has raised the specter of hyperactivity and mentioned the “R” word (Ritalin). And so, here we are, sitting in my office. During the consultation, the kid does his thing: He opens every drawer, flips every switch, and interrupts constantly, all the while eying us to monitor the effects of his disruptions. In the vast majority of children, this kind of behavior results from insufficient early setting of boundaries.

Jean Piaget, one of the great development psychologists, articulated a model of child development that includes the concept of “trust,” which develops when a parent consistently responds to a situation with the same set of behaviors. As early as infancy, a predictable reaction is reassuring, and allows the child to build confidence and to know what to expect. For boundary setting, this is equally important. If—for want of time or to avoid a conflict or out of simple fatigue—you vary your responses to Jimmy’s behavior, you’ll find the strategy is utterly impotent. Or, worse, you’ll find that it’s counterproductive. A misused “time-out” can devolve into an extreme form of pointless reasoning or confrontation that destroys the effects of discipline, sends contradictory messages, and destabilizes Jimmy emotionally.

An obstreperous four-year-old isn’t a lost cause, though. Far from it. In many ways, these kids function on this level just as eighteen-month-olds do; therefore, the only way to get back on track is to do what you would with a toddler.


1 | When a problematic situation arises, give a very short, firm warning.

2 | If Jimmy doesn’t listen, put him in his room with no talking for four or five minutes. Let him throw things, cry, or fly into a rage. All of these responses help him to lower his tension level, and he can’t really hurt himself in his room.

3 | If he escapes more than once, put him back in and lock the door.

4 | When the time is up, open the door and resume your normal activities.


Don’t scream or get upset. This emphasizes the issue, and you want to minimize it.

Don’t reason too much with him. This type of behavior is beyond reasoning, no matter how smart your kid is, and reasoning just equals attention.

Don’t discuss the punishment. Keep talking to a minimum, because here your actions really do speak louder than words.

Don’t revoke privileges. When a tense situation arises, the prospect of not watching TV later won’t be enough to keep Jimmy from throwing a fit.

Don’t reward him when he does behave. Same as above: This won’t be a deterrent when the crisis occurs. Who cares about those gold stars anyway?

Here again, consistency is the key. If you provide the same calm, controlled response to all phases of Jimmy’s erratic behavior, you’ll see a tremendous change in him within ten days. He’ll be much happier and able to start focusing on issues other than boundaries.



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