Q&A: discipline for a 16-month-old

Kirsten writes:

"I have a 16 month old daughter and am 5 months pregnant with another. Our concern is that while our 16 month old is a bright, happy, loving child, she is strong willed and not getting the idea of what Mama and Daddy mean by the word no. She definitely knows when she is doing something wrong when we say 'no' firmly and seriously because she runs and hides from us. She is not impressed by raised voices either, nothing startles her although her hearing is keen. Our pediatrician recommended time outs, which for a select few offenses we implement consistantly. Unfortunately, she thinks time out is fun.

Our main concern is her safety, especially since we are about to have our hands full. When we see her doing something unsafe, we need to find a way to get her to stop before she is injured. Any ideas on how to get her attention?"

Everything I know about getting a 16-month-old to pay attention when you need to stop unsafe behavior is courtesy of Rebecca Kelly, founder of Kids Co-Motion, a movement class for kids in NYC.

One of the things Rebecca tells parents at the beginning of each semester of classes is that the young toddler age is when kids start to have the very beginnings of the ability to control their movements, so this is the perfect time to start helping them learn to control themselves. It's counterproductive, though, to try to get them to sit down or stand still, because a child's natural state is in motion.

The other thing is that we want them to begin to be able to assess situations themselves and move depending on cues that they see and hear, instead of just waiting for us to tell them. (This will come in handy later on, because they'll see a red light and will put on the brake instead of waiting for us to yell "Stop!" from the back seat.) It takes a while, but working with them to sense and understand cues will pay off for them and for us.

In class, Rebecca does lots of dances with the kids in which they change types of motion when the music changes. They learn pretty quickly that when the music changes everyone does something else, and they start to imitate and pick up the cues and changes. She also has them sing or chant along (as they can, obviously--the 16-month-olds aren't so great at it, but the 2-year-olds do really well) to internalize word cues about movement.

We can do this same kind of stuff at home by playing movement games with our kids and attaching words to the games. The most obvious game is "green light/red light," in which you practice saying "green light" and having your child run around like crazy. Then you say "red light!" and the child practices stopping as if s/he's at a red light. Play it enough times for fun, and you'll discover that saying "red light!" will make your kid stop and look back at you, waiting for the green light. (The first time it happens, it's the strangest thing.)

So playing around with learning cues is extremely helpful for these little imitative monkeys. The other thing I've found extremely helpful is to think about what my rules are exactly, and only say "no" or try to stop behavior if I actually care about it. It sounds obvious, right? But think about how many times you try to put a stop to something just because you think you should. Everyone has different preferences, of course, but if there are things that you honestly don't care about, just let your kids do them. For me, that means that I don't care if my kids jump off the couch 20 times in a row. Since they don't hear "no!" and "stop!" constantly, when I need them to stop (at the curb on the street, for example) those words have more of an impact.

I've found commenter Hedra's "safe, respectful, and kind" criteria to be an excellent touchstone for creating a family process for assessing what behavior is allowable and what isn't. Sometimes I'll think "Do I really want them doing this?" and I can run it through the safe/respectful/kind test in my mind. That'll either clarify why I don't want them doing it, or make me realize there's no reason to stop it. Verbalizing this process will help your kids learn to assess things themselves.

This is really long-winded. Does anyone else have comment or suggestions on starting discipline early with young toddlers? Bear in mind that kids this age are notorious for not responding to sharp "no"s, and it's pretty much universally acknowledge that time-outs are way too conceptually advanced for them to work as punishment for this age (although they're stellar as distraction or just removing the kid from the temptation, or giving us time to cool down).