Balancing Discipline and Independence

Discipline is an unavoidable and important component of parenting. And like many aspects of child rearing, it’s a moving target: what is best at one stage of development may not be desirable at a different stage.

While your child is an infant, it may seem that discipline is more a matter of disciplining yourself to deal with the rigors of caring for a baby. But as children reach the toddler stage, they have a natural drive to gain more autonomy. 

Toddlers learn by testing limits.

Defiance and and occasional tantrums are actually a healthy and necessary part of development. Toddlers’ difficult behaviors are part of the way they learn how to navigate the social environment. When these outbursts occur, remember that your child is not just trying to annoy or upset you. This awareness can help you deal with the situation calmly and constructively.

During the toddler years, effective discipline requires parents to perform a balancing act. They must have enough control to keep their child safe and to redirect his behavior when necessary. At the same time, they should allow him enough freedom to learn these lessons for himself.

If parents tried to suppress every act of defiance and prevail in every conflict, their child would robbed of the chance to learn on his own. It might stop undesirable behavior for the moment, but he has not learned why he should comply with the rules. Harsh, overly controlling parenting has been linked to increased behavior problems throughout childhood and adolescence.

Discipline should be about teaching, not punishing.

The goal of discipline is not simply to make children comply with parents’ wishes. It should also encourage a child to learn and accept the values his parents are trying to instill.

Research shows that a moderate approach that supports a child’s autonomy helps them absorb these lessons more effectively. It may mean more conflict in the short term, but it will promote better behavior, healthier adjustment, and greater independence.

Still, there will be times when discipline is necessary. Parents of toddlers use a range of strategies, from spanking to non-physical methods such as time-outs or withdrawing privileges. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that if parents use spanking, they should reserve it for a last resort. Frequent spanking becomes ineffective and may lead to more behavioral problems down the road.

Discipline is most effective when parents show their children emotional support, consistency, and acceptance. Whenever possible, explain your reasons and discuss why his behavior is unacceptable. This will aid in learning and reduce the amount of discipline needed in the future. Most importantly, be sure that discipline takes place in a warm, supportive, and responsive home environment where your child feels accepted and respected.