Theory Thursday: Transitioning away from “Distraction Discipline”

Today’s Theory Thursday is a little pet theory of mine about the best way to teach toddlers to stay away from stuff you don’t want them to have.  I know, it’s not the most profound subject, but it certainly is a time consuming one for SAHMs.  I’d be willing to bet that a mother of a 1-3 year old spends at least 90 minutes every day shooing their child away from dangerous or breakable things.

Of course, the best way to deal with the problem of not-touchable-by-toddlers stuff is to get rid of it or put it out of reach.  But for some things–major appliances, the toilet, computers, DVDs, mommy’s knitting–that strategy isn’t feasible.  You could just keep your baby in a gated room that is baby safe; indeed, I think this is a good practice for at least some of the day to allow a baby/toddler some independence.  However, sometimes you have to cook dinner or brush Baby’s teeth.  Toddlers, with their new-found mobility, are especially likely to encounter forbidden object.

For new babies, there can be no real discipline to keep them away from things, just a re-direction of energy and attention elsewhere, what I call “distraction discipline.”  But on some sad day, this stops working on your toddler and you have to start saying no and dealing with the ensuing tantrums.  As Monkey grew up, I noticed a progression in the discipline I used for dealing with these situations, which I have codified for your convenience.  Basically, I stuck at the lowest level possible until it no longer worked, then gradually transitioned to the next level.  The levels are:

  1. Make the object physically inaccessible, if possible.
  2. Distract, distract, distract.
  3. Say “No” and try to teach them not to touch it, perhaps with a simple reason.  (If you can’t think of a reason, perhaps you’re just freaking out about a new behavior.  Let your toddler experiment a bit.)  But remember, true logic doesn’t kick in until about 3 years old, so don’t expect this to hold from actual understanding so much as from repetition of a key phrase.  Repeat your phrase calmly until the child realizes you won’t give in and gives up himself.
  4. Offer a comparable activity.  If your toddler wants to pour out all of the cereal from the box, chances are that he or she is just interested in how pouring works.  Provide a plastic pitcher and some beans or rice to pour on top of a blanket or cookie sheet.  If he or she wants to drag something against the fireplace grating and create a horrible racket, take the grate somewhere safe and let them experiment with noise, or use cheese graters and metal sieves as a substitute.
  5. Instruct in nature and correct use of the item.  At some point, you’ll have to give into your toddler’s curiosity and teach them how to use the dishwasher, a knife, the sink, the television, etc. etc.  You’ll be surprised to find out how learning to use an item will stick with a toddler.  They very much like to know how things work and how to use them like a grown-up.  (If you’re unsure if a toddler can learn to do something (like use a knife, or put away dishes), I’d suggest checking out a Montessori book from your local library.  Kids can be a lot more self sufficient than we think.)

Viewing Monkey’s curiosity as a progression in discipline and understanding, rather than an act of disobedience, helps us to have a positive relationship about what he’s allow to do.  After all, it’s unreasonable to expect a 2-year-old to hold to the same boundaries as a 1-year-old.  Think how much they’ve learned in that year!  Once he becomes interested in an item we’d previously settled, I know it’s time to move on to the next level.  And once we’ve reached the last level, it’s no longer a problem because he knows the acceptable uses for that object.  For example, here’s how our discipline progression with the toilet looked.

  1. Keep the bathroom door closed.
  2. If the baby wanders into the bathroom, take him out and do something else with him.
  3. Explain “No, the toilet is dangerous.”  Repeat every time Monkey attempts to touch the toilet.
  4. Once Monkey realized the toilet meant open water play, I provided lots of substitute play by filling a large basin with water and setting it on the kitchen floor.  Bring towels.
  5. Explain how to raise and lower the lids gently.  Practice flushing.  Show how toilet paper flushes.  Explain about not drinking the water.  (Eventually, real potty training. :D)

This form of discipline applies mostly to things that children aren’t supposed to touch–stoves, toilets, cabinets, large boxes full of small parts.  But I suppose you could apply this method to social discipline as well.  At first, sharing and turn taking is beyond them.  Swift distraction is the only way to prevent fights.  After a while, distraction no longer works and you can begin to say “no.”  If the child is simply enjoying the act of taking, you could offer comparable activities by playing give and take with the child yourself, or perhaps a tug-of-war type game.  Finally, when the child is old enough to really understand, you can explain the motivations behind good social behavior and expect them to apply them.

Anyway, this though pattern is useful to me, so hopefully, it can help you!

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1 Comment

Filed under Baby (9 - 18 mos), Discipline, Infant (0 - 9 mos), Toddler (18 mos - 3 yrs)

One response to “Theory Thursday: Transitioning away from “Distraction Discipline”

  1. I think this is an awesome theory. Now when I talk to you on the phone and hear you talking to Monkey, I can see where you are at in the steps. Also, I wonder how Sheldon could use it on Penny … lol!

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