Discipline: When is the Right Time to Start?



Mums of toddlers can testify to this. Toddlers are fun to be with, but when the troublemaker in your toddler insists on misbehaving even after you give him/her chance to behave, you may need to start introducing some consequences. The good news: If there are immediate and real consequences for bad behaviour, your toddler — even at this young age — will quickly start to realize that naughtiness is not acceptable.

Discipline is helping your child learn how to behave – as well as how not to behave. It works best when you have a warm and loving relationship with your child. Discipline doesn’t always mean punishment.

Choosing an approach to discipline

Choosing an approach to discipline is about finding the right balance.

Not enough discipline can make parents feel out of control. Too much harsh and punishment might get your child to behave well, but out of fear. This can lead to problems with your child’s self-esteem and anxiety later in life.

Discipline works best when it’s firm but fair. This means you set limits and consequences for your child’s behaviour, while also encouraging good behaviour (with praises and rewards).

Your approach to discipline will also depend on things like your parenting style, your child’s stage of development and your child’s temperament.

Physical punishment – for example, smacking – doesn’t teach children how to behave. If you think it does, why do you think children repeat the same behaviour after the first beating/smacking?


Discipline at different ages

The ways that you can use discipline will change as your child grows and develops.

Under the age of one year, babies don’t really understand right from wrong, and don’t do things to be ‘naughty’.

A lot of your baby’s behaviour is about testing out what he can do and what happens when he does things. So when your baby pulls your hair, you might say ‘no’ and show him/her to touch your hair gently. You’ll probably need to do this over and over again because your baby might not remember from one time to the next.

Punishing or using negative consequences for babies doesn’t work, because they don’t understand what they’ve done (even though most of us think they know when they do wrong. Truth is, they don’t). They need warm, loving care so they feel secure.

Babies give us cues to what they need through their behaviour and body language. When you can recognise and understand your abby’s unique cues, you can give him/her what he/she wants.

Toddlers & Preschoolers
From around the age of one year, toddlers start to understand a bit more about cause and effect. Your toddler might sometimes do something to get a reaction – for example, throwing food or having a tantrum.
From the age of three years, most preschoolers have a good understanding of what is acceptable behaviour and what isn’t. Preschoolers often also start spending more time away from home (at daycare and playgroup), so they get more chances to test out acceptable social behaviour.

Start by saying talking to them. Let them know ‘no’ means ‘no’. This is also a good age to introduce a “Naughty Corner.” This technique works for most parents. When your child misbehaves, send him/her to the naughty corner where he/she won’t be privileged to watch TV, play with toys etc. Then he/she has to promise mummy not to be naughty anymore. Pick a place that’s safe, away from toys and distracting activities, and within your view.

School-age children
School-age children might know how to behave in different places – for example, school, home or the library. But they still need you to remind them of the limits and reward them for good behaviour.

Discipline: Setting behaviour expectations

Setting expectations for your child’s behaviour lays the groundwork for your approach to discipline. Here’s how to get started.

1. Decide on family rules
A good place to start is with 4-5 family rules. For example, your family rules might be things like:

  • We speak nicely to each other.
  • We don’t fight
  • We look after other people.
  • Everyone helps out around the house.
  • We look after our own belongings.

When children are school age and above, you can involve them in helping to decide on some of these rules.

2. Teach your child what behaviour is expected
Children learn by watching what you do. Showing your child the behaviour you like by doing it yourself will help your child learn. For example, if you want your child to sit down to eat, sitting down together to eat family meals can help children learn this behaviour.

3. Praise your child for good behaviour
Praise is when you tell your child what you like about his/her behaviour. When your child gets praise for behaving well, he’s likely to want to keep behaving well.

Descriptive praise is when you tell your child exactly what it is that you like. It’s best for encouraging good behaviour. For example, ‘David, I really like how you used please and thank you just then. Great manners!’

4. Set clear limits and consequences
Decide on a consequence for breaking a family rule.

When you use consequences in the same way and for the same behaviour every time, your child knows what to expect.


No matter what you choose to do when your child misbehaves, be sure to explain to her why she’s getting a consequence. That’s how she’ll learn (you hope!) what not to do. And remember, when it comes to toddler discipline, there are as many effective consequences as there are toddlers. It’s a parent’s endless challenge to find what works best for her and her child at any given time.

Then, once you do figure out an effective toddler-discipline strategy, stick with it! Consistency is key. And make sure your spouse knows the rules, too, and is prepared to enforce them. For toddler discipline to work, everyone has got to get on board.



Sometimes, in order to win the war, you have to lose a battle or two. Don’t tussle over every little thing with your toddler. You’ll both be miserable. Instead pick the battles you need to win, for example, she wants to wear a bikini and tights to daycare… you think she looks silly, but will anyone be hurt if she gets her way? Hard to admit, but probably not.


  • Discipline is not about punishment – it’s about guidance and positive reinforcement
  • While there must be house rules and consequences for those times when the rules are broken, don’t go too extreme with your punishment – by doing this, you risk your child forgetting the reason for the punishment by only remembering the punishment itself.
  • Assess your expectations – is it reasonable for you to expect your toddler to behave in the manner you do?
  • Sometimes to drive a point home to your child, you have to make hard decisions rather than convenient ones. Always use discipline in a way that will teach your child effectively.


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