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The toddler years: Encouraging good behavior

Setting simple, consistent rules and taking steps to head off trouble when possible can help you raise a well-behaved child.

Most likely, your toddler is learning to assert a lot of independence these days. He or she is becoming an avid explorer of the world at large.

You may find yourself always making the same demands, over and over. And your child may seem to delight in ignoring you.

At this point, you may wonder what—if anything—you can do to encourage good behavior.

To be expected

At this early age, kids still have no real sense of right and wrong. Rules and warnings mean little at first. But discipline is still crucial. Now is the time to gently but firmly guide your child in how to act nicely and be in control.

It may help if you think of discipline as a form of teaching. You are helping your child learn to deal with emotions. You also are planting the idea of rules and consequences.

Be realistic in what you expect from and ask of your child, though. Some behaviors, such as acting out when tired or grabbing a toy when another child is playing with it, are normal for kids this age. Over time, you can help your child learn which behaviors are OK and which are not.

Take your child's personality into account as well. Some kids are simply born more active or talkative than others.

Finally, know that learning right from wrong is a process. It will take repeated, consistent reinforcement before your toddler will understand or remember a new rule.

Teaching strategies

Every child is different. But knowing a few basic principles can help you teach your child good behavior. Consider these ideas from the American Academy of Pediatrics and other experts.

Set a few simple rules. Your toddler simply can't deal with a long list of do's and don'ts. Choose a few important rules to focus on. Those that stress safety (such as not running out in the street) and not hurting others (no hitting, biting, kicking) are a good place to start.

Be consistent. React consistently as problem behaviors arise. Inconsistency will cause confusion and more problems since your child won't have a clear idea of what you expect.

Offer praise. Children naturally try to please. Praising their good behavior is a great way to give them positive reinforcement.

Redirect. Distraction is a great tactic when toddlers act up. Interrupt a behavior you don't like by guiding your child to an activity or action that is acceptable.

Anticipate. Plan ahead for how you might deal with situations such as a tantrum or hitting.

Make life easier

You don't have to wait until a problem comes up before you deal with it. In fact, you might avoid some meltdowns and tantrums altogether if you also try these ideas:

  • Avoid situations you know will end in trouble, such as taking your child to the grocery store at nap time.
  • Give transition warnings. For example: "In five minutes we are going to put the toys away. Then we'll get ready for bed."
  • Provide routines and rituals, especially around mealtime and bedtime. This gives your child a sense of security and what to expect.
  • Allow for choices when possible, but keep them simple. For example, you might allow your child to choose between applesauce and yogurt at snack time. Or he or she can decide whether to wear the blue or the green pajamas to bed.

Do as I do

Most of all, set a good example. Your child is watching, learning from and imitating what you do. Your actions will speak much louder than words.

Reviewed 6/21/2022

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