Ask a Baby Blogger: How Young Is Too Young for Discipline?

The question: My husband feels that we can begin disciplining our 1 year old child by giving him time outs and spanking him. I think he’s too young. What is your opinion on how young a child can be disciplined?

I don’t think there is a magical age at which a child can be disciplined in terms of time outs or other tools that you may use. I think it depends on the child, the infraction and what exactly ‘discipline’ means in your household. I also want to point out that there is a big difference developmentally between a 13 month old, an 18 month old, and a 22 month old–although all would technically be 1 year olds. For the purposes of this blog, let’s assume that we are talking about an 18 month old which is a very typical age for those “terrible two” behaviors to begin.

Discipline

The word discipline comes from the word ‘disciple’. I realize the word disciple has religious connotations to it, but at its root the verb disciple means to teach or train someone. That’s all you’re doing when you discipline. . .you are teaching and training your little one. So the question that you need to be asking isn’t whether or not he’s too young but whether or not the consequence for the behavior is teaching him and what it is teaching him.

Understanding

It is hard to discipline a young child because it is hard to know what they understand and what they don’t. Will they get that they have time out because they drew on the wall? The answer to this really depends on each child. But I will say that it is bad logic to assume that they don’t understand the word, ‘no’ or that they won’t be able to associate a consequence with a behavior. Their understanding is not limited to their vocabulary!

This is why it is important to be very consistent in your discipline–and void of anger. It is also important to use natural consequences whenever possible. One example in our house, is that the twins want to walk every where. Yesterday, in the middle of the street, Emily decided she was done walking. . .so I put her in the stroller. You’d think that I had pinched her while I was doing it. The reality is that she understood that if she wanted to walk, she was going to have to follow my cues. She understood that she would not be allowed to run willy nilly. Had she been tired and not wanted to walk–well that’s a different matter. But she wanted to see where the boundaries were and she found out pretty quickly!

A natural consequence like that is a good way to discipline a young toddler because it makes sense. It makes sense that if my twins refuse to wear shoes they have to sit in their stroller. It makes sense that if they refuse to walk they have to sit. And it is consistent–this is what happens every single time we have an issue of this nature.

The point is that when you’re picking your consequences for a specific behavior, the more it makes sense, the more you increase understanding and learning.

Age Appropriate ‘Consequences’

So many undesirable behaviors are displayed at this age because of external factors. When my oldest daughter was about 18 months, she began having a temper tantrums every morning at about 10 am. It wasn’t her nap time as she didn’t even wake up until 8 am and to be honest it took me a very long time to figure out that this was happening at about the same time every day. To make a very long story short I eventually figured out that the issue was snack time. The erratic behavior was caused by a dip in blood sugar and she needed to have a snack at about 10am instead of 10:30am.

Another cause of temper tantrums is “in need of a nap syndrome.” This most frequently happens to us when we’re out and about and there are too many interesting things to look at in order to fall asleep. The ‘consequence’ in this case is to find somewhere less interesting and put the baby to sleep or insist that she sit in the stroller until she falls asleep.

So to answer your question, your child is never too young to learn that there are consequences for behavior. Even a newborn cries because he understands that you’ll attend to his needs–your attention is the effect or ‘consequence’ of his crying. You may dole out different consequences to him as he gets older that might be considered more punitive. And in fact many tools that you use now may not even be considered discipline per se. But if you consider that discipline means to teach–you are always teaching your baby and he is always learning!