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Toddlers' cognitive capacity
Authoritative parenting
What toddlers do that makes it hard for parents to correct
• How to teach toddlers to get along with others
• What to do when your toddler bites or hits others
• What to do when your toddler does not want to leave or move on
• What to do when toddlers want things his/her way
• What to do when your toddler throws a temper tantrum
Alternatives to discipline
Effects of harsh disciplining before age two


Since toddlers don’t have the same cognitive capacity as older children, it is very difficult to parent them and teach them what is appropriate behavior and what is not. Raising toddlers is a process. A great deal of research has been done and suggestions on what to do in certain situations have been given. It is important for parents to be authoritative parents and not permissive or authoritarian because there are several negative outcomes of the later two. There are several tactics that can be used to discipline and teach toddlers even though they may not fully comprehend yet.


Toddlers’ cognitive capacity

From infancy to toddlerhood, children’s brains start to develop. Between the ages of one and two their brain develops at an amazing pace. Toddler’s comprehension is still undeveloped, however, and things such as common sense don’t exist for them. Between 1 and 2, toddlers cannot reason nor stay still for very long. They also cannot anticipate what other people want of them.

Furthermore, their cognitive capacity and limited vocabulary make it all the more difficult for parents who are trying to teach them what they can and cannot do. Dr. Rothbaum, a professor in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development at Tufts University says, “One-year-olds have some rudimentary use of words and a little comprehension, but language on its own is not a powerful way to communicate with a 1- or 1 ½-year-old.” In other words, giving a toddler a lengthy explanation of why he shouldn’t do something just won’t work. This paper will discuss what parents can do to teach their toddlers.


Authoritative parenting

Starting from when a child is born, it is very important to be an authoritative parent. Studies have shown that children from these parents have higher cognitive capacities. An authoritative parent is one that takes time to explain correct principles to a child instead of just saying, “Don’t do that, because I said so.” These parents use good discipline tactics, geared to the age of the child. For a young child sometimes it is appropriate to just distract them from bad behavior and get them to do something else. As the child gets older authoritative parents explain things to their child and tell them the whys behind the don’ts. These parents encourage communication and encourage their child to express his/her feelings. This helps the child know that this is an appropriate way to react to situations, using words rather than becoming physical. These parents let their children be involved in things that they do. For example, they allow their children to make choices about things where either choice is acceptable to the parent. For example giving the child the choice of, “It’s time to eat, do you want cereal or pancakes for breakfast?” is okay as long as the parent is willing to make whatever the child chooses. If it’s not then the parent simply states, “We’re having cereal for breakfast.” Perhaps then the child could be given the choice of having it with or without milk. There are several other attributes that authoritative parents possess. A few of these will be further explained throughout this paper in more detail.


What toddlers do that makes it hard for parents to correct

Because toddlers don’t have the same cognitive capacity and don’t communicate very well it takes a great deal of patience and understanding to parent them. A few things that toddlers do that make it difficult and hard for parents are:

• When they do not want to share toys or anything with others
• When they bite or hit
• When they don’t want to stop what they’re doing to do something else, such as come to eat dinner
• When they say “NO” all the time
• When they scream and throw a temper tantrums in public places.

Parents want to be able to teach their children correct principles, but how do they do that when their children don’t seem to listen or don't seem to be influenced by anything they say? This paper will discuss a few suggestions of things parents can do when children do any of the behaviors previously mentioned.


How to teach toddlers to get along with others

Toddlers start to become aware of themselves from 18 to 24 months. They start to use words like, “me”, “I” and “mine”. They are very egocentric. How do you teach these young children that sharing with others is important? Here are a few suggestions that Marianne Neifert gives:

1.) Prepare for playdates. When you know other children are coming over to play, have them bring some of their own toys. That way if the toddlers don’t want to share they can play with their own toys. Encourage them, however, to share and exchange toys. If they start to fight, take the toys away and distract them by suggesting they color, or paint or read a book. Setting a timer and insisting that the children give up their toy when the timer goes off does not work for children at this young of age.

2.) As the child gets older you can have him help you pick out some of his favorite toys to share with the other children when they come over. Encourage and organize many activities where the children work side by side, such as building blocks, playing with clay, etc.

3.) Teach your child about taking turns by your example. You can use words such as, “When I’m finished, you can park your car in the garage.” Or, “May I use the blue crayon when you’re done?” Saying things like this helps the child know that he’s not the only one that may want to play with or use something.

4.) As always, reward good behavior. When your child shares, express how happy you were that they did that. Maybe say, “You shared so nicely with your friend. I’m sure that made him so happy.” This helps your child know you’re happy with him and may want to repeat the act again.


What to do when your toddler bites or hits others

Parents may often think, “Where did I go wrong?” when they see their child biting or hitting other children. The first thing to remember when you see this is that these one year olds aren’t doing it because they are trying to be mean. They simply don’t know that it hurts others.

Why do toddlers hit or bite?

1.) Patricia Mikell, assistant director of Graham Windham Manhattan Mental Health Center and a child therapist in New York City, explains, “Biting is common because toddlers are in an oral stage—they explore the world around them with their mouths. Toddlers are also exerting their independence now, and some kids express their willfulness by hitting others.” At this age kids learn by putting things in their mouths, even other toddler’s arms.

2.) Toddlers may be experimenting with cause and effect. They want to see what happens or what reaction hitting or biting brings.

3.) They can’t express themselves any other way, since they can’t speak well yet, and hitting or biting may be the way they deal with frustration.

4.) Toddlers have trouble regulating emotions and some may have short tempers and bite or hit as a result.

5.) Toddlers may just need space. If you put a bunch of toddlers together at a playgroup, they may feel cramped and their reflex is to throw their arms around so they can get out.

What can you do?

There are a few things that parents can do to help with this behavior.

1.) Never reinforce biting or hitting. If a toddler gets the toy he wanted by hitting his playmate, he may learn that this is how he deals with the situation. If he wants a toy someone else is playing with next time, he’ll hit again to get it.

2.) Don't laugh when your toddler hits or bites. If you do he may think he’s funny and continue doing it.

3.) Remove your child quickly from the other child and show disapproval. Loudly and firmly say, “No! We do not hit.”

4.) Turn your full attention to the person that got hurt and apologize for your child so that your child can see and hear that what he did was wrong. This will show him that you don’t like what he did and he will gradually learn empathy.

5.) Never hit your child back. This is ineffective and it may make your child think that this behavior is acceptable.

6.) You should not play fight. If the child sees that sometimes it’s okay to hit when you’re playing, he may get confused.

7.) If you see the attack coming, grab the toddler's hand in midair and put your hand over his mouth. This dramatic halt will get his attention.

8.) You can encourage words. If your toddler expresses his emotion, such as “mad” when he’s upset, vocally reward him and help him know this is an acceptable way to communicate emotions (Yu, Winnie, 123-124).


What to do when your toddler does not want to leave or move on

Toddlers get very engaged in what they are doing. It is sometimes very hard for them to move on. They like to focus on one thing at a time. This can make it very difficult for a parent who has a busy life and a schedule to meet. Parents have places they need to be. So how do you get your toddler to pick up the pace and move on? Stephanie Wood gives the following suggestions:

1.) Give them warning. Saying things like, “We need to go in three minutes so finish building the tower,” gives children time to adjust and gives them a few more minutes to finish what they were in the middle of doing.

2.) Keep some favorite toys in the car. That way instead of leaving becoming a negative thing, it becomes a positive thing because the child can start a few fun activities in the car.

3.) Give them rewards, such as telling them they can slide down the slide three more times if they leave when you say it’s time to go.

4.) Always reinforce good behavior. Praising your child when he plays nicely at a friend’s house lets the child know that his behavior was good.

So what about when toddlers don’t want to get their diaper changed? Again the child doesn’t want to stop what he’s doing but also may feel like getting his diaper changed is an invasion of his space. Again this can be handled by giving the child warning, such as, “You need to get your diaper changed in a few minutes,” and then maybe wait until your toddler is finished with what he is doing. You can suggest the toddler bring his toy with him or help him feel like he's in charge by allowing him to pull down his own pants.

There are several other situations where toddlers just don’t want to come, such as at meal times, bath times or when they are being put in a stroller. As always, patience is necessary. When you feel like you’re going to blow up, Wood suggests:


2.)Lower your voice.

3.)Acknowledge your toddler’s feelings.

4.)Put on some soft music.

5.)State your expectations as many times as necessary.

6.) Don’t try to reason, just state what you want such as, “It’s time for dinner. Let’s pick up the blocks and go to the table.”


What to do when a toddler wants things his/her way

The most dreaded word that a parent hears when their child is a toddler is, “No!” How can parents get past this? Betsy Rubiner gives a few suggestions.

1.) Have reasonable expectations and goals. Your child is not going to behave the way your want him to every single time. Understand that your child is very focused on himself. Patricia Henderson Shimm, coauthor of Parenting Your Toddler: The Expert’s Guide to the Tough and Tender Years, says, “Your goal should be to live with a child who’s reasonable at least some of the time.”

2.) Give your child a choice. Children need to feel like they have some power over their lives. Some choices should not be given to a child, like whether or not she wants to go to church on Sunday, but instead you could say, “We’re going to church. Would you like to wear the blue or the pink dress?” This allows the child some say in what she does.

3.) Choose your battles. Some things, like holding hands across the street or not hitting other people, are not negotiable. You should offer room for compromise, however, and not make the toddler feel like he can’t do anything. Maybe it’s not so bad if he gets into the Tupperware drawer and throws the lids around. Maybe it’s okay if he pulls out all the pots and pans and starts banging on them. You could get down and start banging with him and come up with a song together. These things help the toddler’s cognitive capacity grow and help him learn as he explores his world.


What to do when your toddler throws a temper tantrum

At the grocery store

It can be embarrassing for mom and for others, when your 2-year-old starts screaming and jumping up and down in the grocery store because he wants a candy bar. What is a parent to do? Diana Burrell gives a few suggestions in her article, "A Field Guide to Temper Tantrums." When your toddler throws a temper tantrum in the store, first, distract him. You can ask the toddler to go get a bag of tortillas for you, or ask him to name things he sees in the store. If this doesn’t work, you can give your child a warning saying, “If you don’t stop right now, I’m going to take you home.” If the child doesn’t stop, leave your groceries at the check-out stand, telling them you’ll be right back, take the child home and get a baby-sitter for him while you finish your grocery shopping. If you do this, it is very important for you to follow through because it will teach the child that you are serious in what you say. You only have to do this once or twice for the child to get the picture.

At bedtime

What about tantrums at bedtime, what’s a parent to do? Burrell suggests that you should stick to your bedtime routines. If the phone rings, don’t just tell your child to go to bed by himself, let the answering machine get it and go read your child a bedtime story, if that’s what you always do. You can also give the child a warning, saying, “After this movie it’s time for bed.” That way it’s no surprise. You can set the mood for sleeping by dimming the lights and playing calm music. Lastly, Burrell states to stop trying so hard. Put your child in bed and shut the door. Let him cry alone for five minutes and if that doesn’t tire him out, go in and comfort him but leave again for 10 more minutes.

When you leave him with a baby-sitter

What about when your child throws a tantrum when you leave her with a baby-sitter? You can give your child something of yours to “baby-sit” until you get back. This distracts the child and gives her a responsibility. Also, you should say your goodbyes and then just leave. Hesitation could make the child feel even more uncomfortable about a situation.


Alternatives to discipline

Parents don’t always have to discipline there children, especially when their children are two and younger. Peggy O’Mara was a mother for over 30 years before she realized that hitting her children when they did something wrong was not the answer. She wanted to change so she made a list of alternatives to punishment and put it on the refrigerator door. Here is part of her list:

• Point out a way to be helpful.
• Express strong disapproval without attacking character.
• State your expectations.
• Show your child how to make amends.
• Take action.
• Allow your child to experience the consequences of his or her own behavior.
• Sympathize with the child. Be compassionate but stick to your decision.
• Give an early warning.
• Give specific instructions. For example, tell the child what to clean up, not just “clean up.”
• Ask your child if you can help.
• Ignore some annoying behavior. Don’t reinforce negative behavior by giving too much attention.
• Do nothing.
• Tackle one problem at a time. Correct one behavior at a time.

Some parents think that if they don’t physically punish their child, they will be perceived as being weak and lose control over their children. Parents that never spank or hit their children will disagree. If you punish your child harshly, he will learn to comply with your wishes only because he’s afraid of the consequences. When you leave the room he will do what you don’t want him to do. Children that come from these families don’t internalize good principles. They obey solely on the basis of fear or punishment.

Peggy O’Mara came to that realization. She states, “When I get confused about discipline, I think about what I would do in a similar situation with an adult friend. I would not slap my adult friend, for example, for spilling her drink. I would assume that she made an honest mistake. I would not punish my friend for acting immaturely in a group. Instead, I would try to understand and sympathize, would give her the benefit of the doubt and would be eager to hear her side for the story. We give our friends a wide berth because we do not feel responsible for their behavior in the same way we do for our children’s behavior.”

Although Peggy is talking about children who are older, physical punishment should especially not be given to children under 2 years old.


Effects of harsh disciplining before age 2

Studies have been done to examine the affects of spanking on children ages 2 and younger and what affects that has on them in the future. One study was conducted in 2003 by Eric P. Slade and Lawrence S. Wissow. Researchers found that about 93 percent of 3- and 4-year-old children were spanked at least once within the last year. Even though it was not as common, several parents said that they spanked infants and toddlers. Eleven percent said they spanked their child 6 to 11 months old, 36 percent said they spanked their child 12 to 17 months old and 59 percent said they spanked their child 18 to 23 months old. Does spanking children this young have negative outcomes? These researchers found that it does.

Before the age of 2 children develop rapidly emotionally and cognitively. They learn to develop a trust in relationships with the adults that care for them and security. If a child is spanked too often, her development of trust and security is hindered. Children that don’t develop these things, it was found, have problems adjusting when they are preschool aged. Other behavioral problems develop in school and such children are not as socially competent with their peers. It is very important for parents to not spank their child too frequently at this age.



Many suggestions on how to parent toddlers of about 1 to 3 years old have been given. There are many other sources out there that can be helpful for parents who have no idea what they should do when their child acts a certain way. When children are this young and don’t comprehend things as well as adults, parenting becomes very difficult. A few of the main themes throughout this paper were to reinforce good behavior and just be patient. Children soon grow out of their toddler stage and will be able to understand and communicate better. It is important for parents to be authoritative, even when they are young, so their children learn correct principles. Some parents may think it is no use trying since toddlers don’t understand anyway. Emily Perlman Abedon sums this up pretty well by saying, “Just as you began speaking to your child from infancy, teaching him words that may not be internalized for years, so you must start educating him about avoiding dangerous or annoying activities and practicing social niceties. Just realize that your goal is a long-term one.” Parents should not give up trying to teach good behavior. If they don’t, they will one day see the results of all their hard work.



Abedon, Emily Perlman (2000 November). Mind your Mommy! Parents, 75, 277-279.
Burrell, Diana (2004). A Field Guide to Temper Tantrums. Parenting, 18(6), 84-86, 88, 91.
Neifert, Marianne (2002). Getting Along With Others. Parenting, 16(9), 86-89.
O’Mara, Peggy (2004). Instead of Hitting. Mothering, 127, 8, 10, 12.
Rubiner, Betsy (2001). Getting Past NO! Parenting, 15(9), 88-90, 93.
Slade, Eric P. and Lawrence S. Wissow (2004). Spanking in Early Childhood and Later Behavior Problems: A Prospective Study of Infants and Young Toddlers. Pediatrics, 113(5), 1321-1330.
Wood, Stephanie (2000 November). Testing Your Limits. Parenting, 108-110, 113, 115.
Yaqub, Reshma Memon (2005 February). Hitting & Biting. Parents, 80, 153-154.
Yu, Winnie (2003 January). Attack of the Toddler. Parents, 78, 123-124.


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