Select Page

Baby steps and toddler tips: discipline for the earliest years

A few days ago, one of our eight month old twins woke up with a new talent: shaking his head “no.” This was something we had seen him do as a soothing technique as he drifted off to sleep, but when he started doing it sitting up right in the daylight, he was rewarded with thunderous applause and many giggles from his family.

As we delighted in this cute baby performance, I noted to myself that in a few months, he and his brother both will be exerting their toddler-tastic independence, shaking their heads and maybe even saying “no” far more often than we would like. Knowing this day is on the horizon doesn’t exactly thrill my soul.

Toddlerhood is not my favorite season of parenting.

Don’t get me wrong – I adore toddlers. Their newfound mobility and language and personality that bursts at the seams are endlessly endearing. As a parent, however, toddlerhood is exhausting. It’s day after day of discipline.

Does that sound harsh, the concept of daily discipline? If you associate the word “discipline” with “punishment,’ then that would absolutely sound harsh. The word “discipline,” however, shares its roots with the word “disciple,” so the connotation there is the idea of teaching.

And that’s what I mean when I say that toddlerhood is day after day of discipline. Parenting a toddler is the practice of teaching a little one – all day, every day.

toddler tunnelPhoto by Theodore Scott

So, when we talk about discipline for toddlers, what does that look like lived out in the real world? I’m certainly no expert, having survived those trials by fire only twice, but today I would love to start the conversation here by sharing some of what has worked the best for us:

1. Establish firm, consistent boundaries

A toddler is taking her very first unsteady steps towards independence from you, her parents. This is both thrilling and terrifying for little ones. One of the best ways we can help them is teaching them where the boundaries are in the environments they share with us.

Toddlers thrive on predictability, so as much as possible, stick to the boundaries that have been set. This won’t stop them from testing the boundary lines you have marked. But even if their outward behavior doesn’t reflect it, they will find comfort in knowing that in a world that is filled with new discoveries every day, there are some things that never change.

2. Keep instructions simple

The day will come when you can have logical, thoughtful conversations with your children. Toddlerhood is not that day. It’s not even close to age-appropriate to expect a toddler to understand a logical explanation for your request.

This kind of teaching is short and sweet:

No biting. Biting hurts.
Chairs are for sitting.
Use gentle hands.
Feet in the grass.
Hold my hand.

toddler 2Photo by Graniers

3. Introduce (and allow) consequences

As a child moves fully into toddlerhood, the concept of cause-and-effect becomes more and more firm. This is a prime time to begin imposing logical consequences and allowing for natural ones as well.

For example, I had a “you hit, you sit” rule with my second daughter. If she hit another child, I removed her from the situation and made her sit with me until she was ready to return to playing. If she couldn’t play without hitting, the consequence was leaving fun times and sitting with boring old Mom.

Natural consequences are powerful teaching tools, too. After being asked to “use walking feet,” a toddler who is wobbly on his feet and keeps running may fall and skin his knee on the sidewalk. Though it’s difficult at times, try not to step in too often to interfere with the natural consequence of a toddler’s choice (unless, of course, their bodily safety is at risk).

4. Model desired behavior and give alternatives

What behavior is your toddler exhibiting that you want to change? How can you teach her an alternative?

If she is insistent on opening your cabinet full of kitchen appliances, remind her that that cabinet is “no touch,” but don’t stop there. Take her to a cabinet you have made safe just for her and call it her “yes touch” cabinet.

If hitting is the issue, remind him that “hitting hurts,” then hold his hand and demonstrate what a gentle touch feels like.

5. Give them words

Parenting pre-verbal and newly verbal children is endlessly frustrating – for both parents and little ones. I learned a technique in a parenting book I read years ago that encouraged parents to help their toddlers find and use the words to express their feelings.

In the midst of a meltdown, I might hold my toddler and say, “You are feeling sad. You are angry we had to leave the park.” I found teaching my older girls the sign language words to express these emotions was extremely helpful, too.

toddler 3Photo by petriemax photography

Ultimately, discipline for toddlers is intensive, exhausting work. It’s so important to pick your battles as well as committing to stand firm on the non-negotiables.

But all of that work pays off in the end! It really does, I promise. The foundations of discipline and relationship dynamics laid in toddlerhood build the firm foundation for smoother sailing as your little ones grow into Big Kids. The investments made today will pay dividends in the future that are well worth the hard work.

I know there are many reading who have much more experience in the realm of toddler parenting than I have! What advice can you share? And for parents in trenches today, what challenges and victories have you experienced lately?

Reading Time:

4 minutes





  1. Jamie

    All good reminders! My 3rd child just turned 1 and we are experiencing the beginnings of his willfulness. His sisters tend to want to give in to him (he IS so cute after all!), but they are learning to let him learn and are actually very good little helpers at maintaining his boundaries. I don’t want him to grow up too fast, but this is also NOT my favorite stage. Thanks for the post!

  2. Robin from Frugal Family Times

    When my kiddos were toddlers and acting frustrating I would think of the word HALT to help me figure out what was up with them. More often than not it worked for us:

    I wish a C fit in that word somehow, because Constipated was often an issue that brought about challenges here too!

    • Stephanie@Mrs.Debtfighter

      I have never heard that- HALT! I remember reading those 4 in a parenting book when mine were that age and always helped me figure out what was wrong. It has always amazed me the extreme difference in their attitude when they are tired! My boys follow a pretty strict bedtime but sometimes they do get to stay up late for special occasions (which normally ends up being a lot later than their bedtime) and boy do we pay for it the next day!!! 🙂

  3. Jessica

    Great tips, Megan. I’m a first time mom with a 6 month old baby girl at the moment, so gonna save this one for later!

  4. Jessica

    Great advice, Megan. I think it is so important to realise that discipline isn’t punishment, but teaching and discipling your child. I’m a first time mom with a 6 month old baby girl so gonna save this for later, I’m sure it’ll come in handy!

  5. Raynel

    Thanks for this encouragement. The timing of your post is perfect! I am in the midst of a move with a busy 19-month-old girl, and I have been getting a little burnt out on the daily discipline in the midst of packing and moving stress. I feel like I have to tell her “No” so many times every day, and it is hard on both of us. Your tips were a good reminder to keep things simple and keep my motivation right. And I am so glad to remember that toddler-hood is just a season!

  6. Rachel

    Thank you for these reminders and encouragement. My first and only baby is 15 months as of last week. I was in for quite a shock around 13 months when it felt like we woke up one morning and the whole ball game had changed!!! My cuddly, people loving, easy going girl had been replaced with a willful and crazed toddler! It is so exciting seeing her development her language and become more self aware and independent but it can also be maddening. 500 hundred reminders about gentle touch and not putting our hands in toilet water and this is your cabinet and this one is no touch, moving from one activity to another at lightening speed every 2.5 seconds, throwing her littler but surprisingly strong body to the ground and withering in frustration. I am beyond exhausted at the end of the day. I know that in the end our consistency is beyond important and this to shall pass and that before I am ready she will be grown and off to school…a big girl 🙂

  7. Karen

    Thanks for this! I have 13 month old twins and am new to toddlerhood. I find that my son, especially, loves to be a helper. So sometimes I can change the dynamic by appealing to this. For example, if he is playing with something he shouldn’t I can ask him be my helper and put it in a certain place instead of just taking it from him. Or encourage him to help his sister instead of just taking away a toy he may have taken from her. And I love the idea in Montessori education of “sensitive periods”…so I try to figure out what they are actually trying to accomplish with the undesirable behavior…to see if there is a developmentally appropriate replacement.

  8. jess

    What a timely post! My 15 month old is certainly asserting his independence but so far it has been a lot of fun and not too frustrating. I’m bracing myself. His biggest issue is wanting to take food from our plates when he has the same thing in front of him. I try to say, “no, mommy’s food” but it usually ends in a meltdown. Thanks again for the tips! Nice to know all toddlers are this way!

  9. Karen

    Yes I could really use some more advice on this topic. I have a 21 month old boy and he is getting frustrated if he doesn’t get his way. Dinner time is a battle. Are time-outs a good thing to use? Or talking it through? I have friends say you can’t reason with a toddler but what else can I do? I feel like I am lost…

    • HeyBeckyJ

      Ellyn Satter (google her book and websites) has amazing advice/guidance on surviving toddler mealtimes. I highly recommend.

  10. Faigie

    just finished a visit with my daughter and her family. She has 4 and the 2 youngest are 2 and a half and 7 months. Wow what a full time job.
    I barely remember just keeping him off of the baby is a full time job. Hasts off to all of you that are still doing this

  11. Tacy

    So very good. I especially loved your tips on safety issues and danger. So very helpful and true!

  12. Jackie

    Good post!
    Best advice I can give is to visit, bookmark it, and read often!! Even better, sign up for the 6-week tele-class. I’ve been an avid reader of the site and am now in the middle of the course. It is a game-changer. I can’t say enough about it. Miss Faith really knows what she’s talking about. Her mother wrote one of my favorite parenting books, You are Your Child’s First Teacher.

  13. Kate @Wild Tales of...

    Thank you so much for this post, Megan! Discipline takes so much patience and consistency, and your strategies are so helpful—I really love your simple instruction ideas. Your points also help me realize that I am not alone in being a mother to a little one who can at times show some pretty frustrating behavior.
    For my son, routine is SO important, and even though it seems like he might not understand, cluing him on what we are about to do & what to expect. And finally, plenty of time outdoors!

  14. Aimee

    I found the concept of “helping them obey” to be good for us. If I asked my child to pick up the blocks and put them in the basket and was met with a “NO”, I would say, “Come on! Let’s do it together!” and would literally help their hand go to the block, pick it up and let them drop it in. That usually was met with a giggle and then a willingness to do more. Or I “help” them walk and get their shoes. The biggest thing for me is not to get into a battle of the wills. Use HALT and use joy and use distraction.

Join thousands of readers
& get Tsh’s free weekly email called
5 Quick Things,

where she shares stuff she either created herself or loved from others. (It can be read in under a minute, pinky-swear.)

It's part of Tsh's popular newsletter called Books & Crannies, where she shares thoughts about the intersection of stories & travel, work & play, faith & questions, and more.