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Angela Oswalt, MSW

Another way to help babies begin to learn social skills, stay safe, and begin to learn values and morals is to provide appropriate discipline from birth. During the first months, the priority of discipline is keeping babies safe until they can comprehend right and wrong and the consequences of their actions. Remove problem objects or remove babies from problem areas and redirect their attention to other appropriate toys or activities to prevent safety hazards or other socially unacceptable situations. For example, if the baby grabs an expensive book off the table, gently take it out of their hands and replace it with a baby book instead. As babies grow and begin to crawl or cruise, they may wander into parts of the house or other locations where caregivers don't want them to go; just pick them up and set them back down in another area.

At this stage of development, physical punishment such as spanking is not very effective, if at all, because infants don't understand the cause and effect connection between misbehavior and punishment. In later months, corporal punishment alone will only teach young toddlers to avoid being caught, to avoid uncomfortable punishments, and will not teach them the reasons why their behavior was inappropriate and what they should do instead. Moreover, physical punishments can be dangerous or even deadly for young infants. Babies can suffer brain damage or die if they are shaken. If a parent or caregiver ever becomes overly frustrated with their baby's behavior or crying, there are other options available. They can reach out to a trusted family member, friend, or neighbor, or they can call a hotline such as 1-800-CHILDREN (National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse), 1-800-4-A-CHILD (Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline, which serves the U.S., its territories and Canada) or Child Wise National Child Abuse Prevention Helpline
1800 991 099 (Australia).

By around age 6 months, babies begin to understand the word "no." Continue setting boundaries about what is right and wrong for babies to do, say, and act. Use simple and concrete directions such as "Please put that down" or "Please come back to Mommy." Caregivers set boundaries and behavioral expectations by being consistent in their rules and redirection. If parents or caregivers do not allow the baby to play in Dad's office today, they should not allow the baby to play there tomorrow; the child will become confused about what is and is not allowed. Caregivers can also use time-outs to give toddlers a chance to take a break and calm down before coming back to the action. Time-outs should last as long as a child's age, expressed in minutes. A two-year-old takes a two-minute time-out; a seven year old takes a seven-minute time-out. Consistency can be one of the most difficult aspects in discipline, but this is good practice because consistency will become even more crucial in later years when parents and caregivers want older children to follow the rules and to respect their wishes.

Parents and caregivers can help shape and mold their baby's behavior by modeling the behaviors they want their babies to emulate. For example, if caregivers want to teach the child to brush their teeth or to eat vegetables, they should do those activities themselves and make sure they are seen doing them. Conversely, if caregivers do not want the child to do something, like use bad language, they shouldn't do it in front of them.

Young toddlers will often use temper tantrums to show their displeasure at a situation or to get their way. Toddlers, and sometimes older children, will cry and scream, stomp their feet and fists, and even lie on the floor, refusing to move. The best way to curb these tantrums is not to reward them when they do happen. For example, if a child is having a tantrum because he asked for a cookie and didn't get one, then the parent should not give him the cookie. By relenting and giving him the cookie, the parent or caregiver is telling the child that the way to get what he wants is to tantrum. The cookie would reward the tantrum behavior. As well, excessive attention in the form of repeated phrases such as "Jimmy, stop that" or "Please, Jimmy, don't -- come look at the TV" also rewards the behavior and will encourage him to continue.

Clearly, calmly, and concisely tell the child that a tantrum is not acceptable, and then tell him what behavior is acceptable. For example, "Jimmy, screaming and hitting the floor are not OK. Please calm down and eat your macaroni," would be all that a parent would need to say. Then ignore Jimmy's tantrum behaviors, even if they get louder or more intense, as long as Jimmy isn't hurting himself or others in the process. With the parent or caregiver remaining calm and continuing as if Jimmy's behavior isn't bothering anyone, Jimmy will tire of putting all that energy into something that isn't going to get him what he wants. When Jimmy does come to the table calmly and eats his macaroni, praise and encourage him, "Jimmy, that was a good job calming down. Thanks for eating your macaroni. Awesome." Give him a hug and leave it at that. By praising the listening and compliant behaviors, the parent is rewarding Jimmy, and he will learn to earn rewards in positive ways.

Tantrums often occur in public, such as at the grocery store. Caregivers feel embarrassed and want to end the noise and commotion as quickly as possible. Once again, giving in or giving excess attention will only encourage a sequel to that tantrum in the future. Continue to use the same ignoring techniques with supervision to maintain the toddler's and safety.

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