You should not correct your child until you know for sure that he or she is old enough to understand what constitutes misbehavior. This means the child is capable of learning rules, remembering them, and applying them to guide his or her own behavior.
Children Under Age 3
Most children under the age of three cannot understand these rules yet. Patient, persistent, and positive instruction is the order of the day, showing preverbal children how to behave with playful demonstration, making it a game of imitation. Games of imitation are very powerful ways to teach a preverbal child who naturally wants to copy what his parents can do.
If your child grows tired and loses interest or resists what you want to teach, redirect her attention to something else. Bring the child back to the task at a later time to continue learning. The formula for much disciplinary training in early childhood is:
PLAY + PATIENCE + PRACTICE + POSITIVE ATTENTION = PRODUCTIVE INSTRUCTION
When you need to correct your young child to discourage unwanted behavior (such as hitting) or unsafe behavior (throwing things), use the headshake “No.” Gently clasp the child's hands, look him in the eye, and with a serious (not angry) expression, shake your head three times, and softly but clearly repeat the word “no.”
Wait a few seconds for understanding to sink in, then normalize the relationship by giving him a smile and a hug. When the child safely avoids doing what you have corrected, or has done what you wanted, be sure to reward that performance with approval and praise.
You must be especially sensitive when you correct your very young child. Expressing disapproval of actions you do not like before the child is old enough to know better only frightens and confuses the little boy or girl.
For example, suppose your son spills a large glass of juice because he tried to lift it with just one hand, and now there is a mess to clean up when you were ready to relax. It's easy for you to feel angry because this event seems like something that could have been avoided. Once angered, you may be tempted to make a corrective response.
Remember: Children will want to learn if their efforts are encouraged and rewarded, but they will be reluctant to learn if their efforts are criticized and punished.
What is really called for, however, is an instructional response: re-education. “Next time when you lift a glass so big, use two hands instead of one, like this. Now let's get two towels from the kitchen and you and I can clean up the spill.” Afterward, thank him for helping to clean up. You may also want to practice carrying the glass with two hands so actions can reinforce his understanding.
Children Over Age 3
With older children who have learned language skills, you can explain things because they now can understand from being specifically told. What you tell them must be specific and operational, not general and abstract. Tell your five-year-old to “clean up” her room, and you may get toys pushed out of sight under the bed, which is not what you meant by “clean up.”
To say what you mean, specify the actions you want your son or daughter to take, give them one at a time, and sequence them until the whole job is done. “First, I want you to pick your toys up off the floor and put them in the toy chest.” When this part of the task has been accomplished, reward it with your appreciation, and then move on to the next task in the sequence.
“Now I want you to take the dirty clothes on your bed and put them in the laundry basket in the hall.” If you don't give enough specific information about what you ask her to do, your child's performance will not match up with your intent.
For very young children, positive responses, playful gaming, redirection, re-education, and an occasional use of the headshake “No” for correction should be all the discipline a parent needs to provide.
If you have a willful child who has a hard time accepting “No,” then choose not to say the word at all. Offer the child alternative choices instead. Rather than declare, “You can't use that tool,” say, “Here are some other tools I have that I can show you how to play with instead.” You are teaching her that even when her first choice isn't allowed, other desirable choices are still available.
What willful children want in particular, more than any specific object or activity, is the power of choice. So rather than just forbid what they want, offer them a number of other choices that are interesting to them and acceptable to you.