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Home Family Parenting Advice Teaching toddlers right from wrong – Good Parenting

Teaching toddlers right from wrong – Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,toddler mess2

Our daughter is 15 months old and is our first child (after the cat). We are looking forward to adding at least one sibling, and possibly more, to the family. Of course, this one is breaking us in. We see how she imitates a lot of what we do yet there are more and more situations in which she does something on her own initiative which we have to stop. An example is dumping everything from my purse onto the floor — something she has now done three times. She has never seen me do this, nor do I give her any positive attention for doing it.

What should we be doing to curtail misbehavior and guide her toward self-discipline?

Mother of One

Don’t miss last week’s column No fan of tongue piercing – Good Parenting

Dear Mother of One,

Parents play an influential role in helping children to choose right from wrong.

Steady on her feet, your daughter has entered a stage in which she imitates what her special grown-ups do, but at the same time she has the curiosity, and apparently persistence, to try to figure out some things on her own. This is a wonderful time to focus on her decision making —which for now, includes making sure that her curiosity can be satisfied without risk to herself or annoyance to others.

Toddlers are great explorers. An unguarded purse is just asking for its contents to be laid out for close examination. The best prevention is to avoid leaving anything you don’t want dumped within her reach. Instead, provide at least one container that can be dumped in every room of the house in which she is free to entertain herself. This might be a toy such as building blocks in a bucket, a box of coasters under the coffee table, the laundry basket with a clean load of socks, or a tub of small containers and lids on a low kitchen shelf. Usually toddlers will enjoy dumping and exploring the same items repeatedly over a span of months before the novelty wears off.

In addition to assuring that there are plenty of interesting areas and objects for her to explore, invest time in your interactions and relationship with her. By now, your daughter has been assured that time and again her parents, and maybe a few other people, are reliable sources of food, comfort, safety and entertainment. Young children are much more likely to imitate and to comply with the wishes of those with whom they have a bond. Attachment is that powerful force which compels us to look out for the best interests of each other — though, at this stage, it may feel mostly one sided.

It’s not too early, however, to establish the family rules under which you, your husband, your daughter, and any subsequent siblings will live. Rules can include how you take care of one another, how you take care of your home, and how you share yourselves and your home with others. For instance, if wasting food is against the family code, she will soon learn your habits for preparing and serving what is likely to be eaten, setting aside compostable food waste for the garden, and storing leftovers for later consumption. An enduring part of her identity will be the family customs and values that shape what she does and who she is.

This is not to say that you only need to decide how she should behave and then she will. At this age particularly, and through the next several years, she will need your consistent modeling, coaching and reinforcement to live by the family rules.

  • Modeling: This is the time to set proper examples — if you don’t want her to drink tomato juice on the couch, you shouldn’t either.
  • Coaching: Try to set her up for success with timely reminders – “gentle touches on the cat” as the cat springs from the table to her high chair tray.
  • Reinforcement: Your words are backed up with concrete actions or “logical consequences” — her sippy cup of tomato juice is removed from her reach when she decides to use it for creative visual expression on the passing cat.

The toddler years are a continued period of amazing growth. Early child development is getting long overdue recognition in such esteemed circles as UNICEF, which is interested in improving not only the health of children around the world, but in making changes during early childhood for long lasting positive impact into adulthood. Brain scientists inform us that until about the age of 2 years, babies are developing 700-1,000 new connections between brain cells per second. Good nutrition is only part of the picture for filling in with outside resources to assure that all children have the positive experiences that healthy relationships with nurturing caregivers can provide.

Early childhood educators understand the critical role both they and parents play as the brain continues its phenomenal ability to absorb new information and gain competence in a variety of skills. During the next phase, the preschool years, your daughter’s actions will take into consideration the reactions from parents, playmates and teachers. She will become better and better able to predict how you (and others) will react to her actions, and better able to stop herself from doing things you wouldn’t want her to. It’s a process. She is transforming from someone who operates from the pleasure principle — if I want to do it I will do it — to someone who discovers that she actually derives pleasure from pleasing those around her.

As she continues beyond walking, she is gaining skills that let her take care of her own needs. With persistent good parenting, and allowance for bad moods and other reasonable reasons for discord, she will gradually be able to consider others’ needs before her own. It will make perfect sense to her that you wouldn’t want your purse dumped out, and neither would she. Self-discipline, the end goal, is enjoying the reward of doing the right thing for its own sake.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com

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