What's the Right Age to Start Disciplining Kids?

Should You Discipline a Baby?
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It’s easier to offer your child a huge and a soothing voice when he’s upset than it is to discipline him, but sometimes that can only perpetuate bad behavior. It’s tricky, though, for parents—especially first-timers—to figure out if their child is even old enough to understand negative consequences.

An infant can display behavior that you want to correct within months, such as yanking hair or pulling off your glasses, but at that age, it’s more effective to redirect than to discipline.

So when, then, does discipline become effective?

As with so many things, it depends on the child. Generally speaking, though, you can change your tactics to correct behavior—rather than simply redirect it—after age 1. Keep in mind that discipline doesn't necessarily mean punishment, but rather helping them understand the difference between right and wrong behavior.

Under a Year

Tiny little babies, as cute as they are, haven’t yet developed language comprehension, memory or an attention span that’s required for any discipline tactics to stick in the long run. At this point, you want to distract your little one from whatever he’s doing, such as pulling on the dog’s tail to shaking a rattle or toy. While you can you the word “No” as much as you please, she won’t understand what you’re saying. 

Between 1 and 2

This is when the power of “No” becomes apparent…until you overuse it. Use it only in serious situations or risk rendering the word into a completely useless weapon in your arsenal.

Discipline still involves redirecting; however, you can firmly tell your toddler what not to do, such as “Don’t pull the dog’s tail; it hurts the puppy.” Follow it up with a positive instruction, such as “Gentle touches.”

Over Age 2

Even though little ones over 24 months can often express themselves verbally and seem to understand directions from you, they still don’t quite get appropriate behavior or understand why they can’t do things the way they want to do them.

When possible, validate your child's feelings before heading straight to punishment—saying statements such as, “I know you don’t like taking a nap. But it’s time to rest up so we can have a fun afternoon.” Keep your words short and sweet, as toddlers will be more likely to understand than long reprimands.

This is the age when the time-honored discipline tactic of time-outs becomes effective. Don’t just send the child to her room and be done with it, but rather create a cozy corner, where you can still see her, where she sits for one minute per every year of her age (e.g., three minutes for a 3-year-old). This gives the child time to calm down.

As with everything else relating to toddlers, consistency is vital. It’s exhausting to repeat yourself over and over again, but if you say “No tail-pulling” the first time, you need to say it each and every time you spot him pulling the dog’s tail.

Strategies to Avoid

Avoid shaming or criticizing him. Instead of calling him a “bad boy” for pulling the dog’s tail, tell him that “Good boys pet the doggy gently.”           

While you might get so frustrated that you feel that you’re going to have a melt-down, spanking isn't an effective discipline technique. Not only does it hurt your child, but it teaches him that it’s appropriate to hit when he’s upset.           

Take brief breaks, redirect her behavior and be consistent instead, and you’re likely to see your toddler’s behavior improves as he continues to grow and understand your requests.

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