Toddler Tips: Shaping Good Behavior

Here are my tips for cultivating with love, a toddler's good behavior:

-Remember that the term toddler encompasses a huge range of development-from first "toddling" around one (still babies!), till three. What they can understand and control at one is so much different than what they can understand and control at three and they all move and grow at their own pace through these years (don't compare!).  Reading a book on child development helps so much.  I highly recommend Dr. Sear's Discipline Book (this one)-he mixes tips with child development facts so it's practical but informative.  Another book I love these two books by Mac Blesdoecalled Parenting with Dignity.

-Cultivate a kind, engaged, calm environment in our homes as much as possible with good routines.

-Give our toddlers attention. Read books, get on the floor and play, let them follow us around when we do chores (and give them work to do), hold them, hug them, kiss them, make them laugh (which is so easy!), pick them up when they need comfort (or get down to their level when you cannot).

-Recognize that toddlers will just have bad days-like we do, but maybe more so because they are growing and changing so quickly.  Pray for patience, show them love, and just know that things will even out.

-Anticipate what is going on in their little heads so we can guide them in the right direction before behavior needs to be corrected.

-Say yes as much as possible, make our "no's" count.  They will listen to our no's if they are rare and firm, but if they hear this word often and carelessly, it will become meaningless to them.  There are a million ways to say yes!

-Set up our home and routine to allow as many yes's as we can.  If we don't want our one year old to touch our special things, just put them away, until they are old enough to understand why they can't touch them.  Don't fight their need to touch and explore-this is what their brain is wired for!  It will just cause needless frustration for us and them.

-When toddlers are put in situations and environments where good behavior is "easy" for them, good behavior becomes a habit.  Unfortunately, the opposite is also true.  Toddlers need down-time and lots of it, they need to be able to move, play without sharing, be curious and safe and have attentive care.  When they get all these chances to be "good", they can more easily tolerate the situations where more is required from them.  Practically this means we have to say no to constant play groups, play dates, eating out, events where they are stuck in the stroller, or in a car seat, etc.

Redirect, avoid, prepare.  This is the key!
Redirect-I will give an example.  Today Janey and I were taking a walk.  We came to the corner of the curb where we can continue one way across the street (the way she wanted) or continue around the block.  She stopped and said, "This way?"  I said, "Let's go this way."  She said, "No, this way." I said, "Remember those acorns?  Let's go find those acorns!" in a very excited voice, and I started walking the way I wanted to go.  I could see her mind ticking, and she started moving my way.

I have done this so much with all my children-give them something else to think about instead of dwelling or escalating a problem.

Avoid-This is where we know our toddler's hot topics and do our best to steer around them-cut an event short and avoid loud crowds if they are sensitive, or be very conscious of too many choices if they are easily overwhelmed etc, and be prepared to spend more energy if we do participate in something that isn't age appropriate for them.  (Church, a crowded birthday party, a reunion, etc.)

Prepare-Tell our toddlers where we are going, what will happen and what behavior we expect to see. "We are going to the grocery store to get apples and bread, and when we get inside you are going to get in the cart with your baby, and mom is going to push you, and then we will ride the horsey at the end."  (If I knew that the cart would be a hot button for her, I will say just when I am about to put her in the cart, "What did mom say we had to get?  Apples, and grapes and blah blah blah."  If she protested, I would say, "You are gong to sit in the cart because we are going to go fast to ride the horsey at the end, look at these big apples over here, do you want to hold the bag of them?" This way I am redirecting attention away from the actual cart sitting process, and on to something else...we are moving forward, not dwelling, but I am still being firm.

-Be confident, calm and firm when correcting.  For older toddlers, when we say no, mean it and move on as quickly as possible. .

-Correct them with words and show them what behavior we want to see. (If a toddler is too rough with a young baby (even when that toddler is only one) say, "No, no, no, we have to be gentle or we will make baby cry, look how little he is!" and take his hand and show him what gentle means and then be so, so pleased when they do it the right way.  If a toddler throws sand, show him the pain and discomfort it causes (teaching empathy!) and say, (getting down at their level and holding their hands and with a very concerned face) "Look how sad you made (insert name), sand hurts, and we don't throw it ever, it's for digging."  If they would do it again, they are taken out of the sandbox and told, "No we don't throw sand ever."  If a toddler throws a toy, explain quickly and firmly why we don't throw toys- "because these are our special things and they might break and then we'd be sad, let's clean this up and do this instead."

-Look at causes of behavior.  Was that toy thrown when the TV was blaring, when roughhousing with other children was getting too wild, when the room was a disaster (which is overwhelming to them), when no parent was present or paying attention for too long?  Tired, hungry? Toddlers respond to their environments, and we are responsible for trying our best to cultivate their environment.


On spanking, hand-slapping, pinching, flicking, (yes there is such a thing, I was sorry to find out), or any/all physical punishment which is meant to cause purposeful physical pain to the baby and toddler in order to get them to stop doing something, or start doing something:
-Our beautiful children aren't dogs, or goats, or mules, they are intelligent, thoughtfully-formed, developmentally driven humans with tender inner spirits.  Toddlers are shaping the view of the world, responding to their environments, learning who to trust, and how to act, what is safe and what is not. Being physically assaulted (this is what we would call it if it was done to us) can not ever be an effective, healthy path to learning or behavior, as it strips a child of his or her God-given dignity.

It bothers me so much when I see this advice given and new mothers being influenced by it. I understand that parents often might live in fear of not having a "good" child if they don't use these sorts of punishments, or feel pressure from family, or be desperately looking for advice when they feel their child's behavior is less that desirable.  But I want to assure that you absolutely can have a good child without physical punishment in the picture. I wrote about mother mentors back here, and when I think of the families I know that have just lovely, kind, kids (many of them are now adults) who are respectful and pleasant to be around, didn't and don't or almost never use or have used physical punishment, or for that matter, much punishment at all.

It seems so common sense and logical to me that when a small child lives in fear of pain, or lives in a world where the opposite of what is taught (don't hit) is then experienced (but I can hit you), and their need for calm, firm, loving guidance is confused, that child becomes either more aggressive, or whinier, or clingier, or louder, or distrustful, or angry, or unresponsive to any discipline or most likely, all of the above.  If it doesn't stop one behavior, it brings out another and the whole problem snowballs.  And then one is left with more difficult kids (where difficult behaviors are now considered "normal"), who need to be disciplined more, which makes the problem worse and worse.
In a way these children have become less sensitive, and develop a tougher exterior steeped in strong emotion.  It's a trapped cycle that parents and children are caught in, around and around and it doesn't have to be this way.

Firm and straightforward but kind, consistent loving calm guidance. high but appropriate expectations.  

I am not advocating for permissive parenting. That is just as extreme and misguided.  Permissive parenting means very little parent engagement, parents watching kids do naughty things or behave in ways that hurt or disturb others with a shrug and "what am I going to do about it" attitude, and letting kids be in charge. They do NOT want to be in charge, they need strong confident leadership and guidance and attentive consistency.

Our little ones want badly to please us, they want to be good, and we can have beautiful relationships with them-with us as respected leaders, and them as a disciple-learning, loving, trusting, growing.  We must make them feel safe and we do that by respecting their bodies, creating strong reliable routines, and showing them our love through our time. 

Sally Clarkson says it best:
"When we appeal to our children’s hearts for excellence and choices of good behavior, then we are giving them the will and desire to be excellent for themselves. Their desire comes from within and their motivation is from the heart. But if we train them behaviorally by always forcing them to do what we want them to do because they might get a spanking or some other kind of threatened discipline, their motivation is to avoid spanking or harshness, not to please God or to please their parents by having a good heart and responding in obedience."
"Our home, our relationships, our family will become what we live by, what we practice.  So today, if you wish your children would respond to you in love, in gentleness, with grace, with loyalty, with words of life, just do unto them as you would have them do unto you. Be consistent, have integrity, practice maturity–what we sow becomes what we reap in the lives of our precious children and I can say, at this stage in my life, the fruit of such practice is so very sweet. How very blessed I am by my wonderful, thoughtful, still growing, but loving children."
On cell phone and discipline, and something to think about:
Two weeks ago I was in the library with my three year old.  There were three mothers there also, every one of them on their phones.  Two out of the three ended up slapping/hitting their kids.  Both of the children didn't seem to be behaving terribly to me, in fact, both had spent most of the time behaving well, but they both did one inappropriate thing in order to get their mother's attention.

I would bet, had the mothers NOT been on their cell phones, that scenario wouldn't have played out the way it did.

I know how hard it is to not be distracted these days.  Because I am in my later forties though, I can remember the ancient times (one of my kids just asked if TV's were invented yet when I was young!) when phones weren't able to be carried everywhere, weren't beeping, and tempting and calling us away from our children.  Oh it was lovely!  There was so much more time in the day.  We must see ourselves through the eyes of our children.  We don't have to be available always (that would get tiring and no laundry would get done) but there is something about the constant pull of distraction throughout the day that is not conducive to parenting.

Look up. Encourage and notice the good. Be present. We will be rewarded with better behavior the more we are engaged in real life and the less we are distracted by trivial things.


  1. Thank you for this post! I have been having such a tough time lately my 2 year old seems so much harder to parent lately and I think he just needs some more attention and redirecting. He is the youngest of 6 and everyone is back and school and his routine is a little out of sorts, I ma pretty sure i need to turn off the TV of cartoons and actually engage him more int he day

    1. Raquel-It is always an adjustment after the summer of "fun" and then when the older kids go back it takes some getting used to. Janey watches an episode of Sesame Street here and there, but I have found that TV has always made my kids crabbier and out of sorts and unable to entertain themselves and be content. (But I know that sometimes I just need the 30 minutes to catch up or do something uninterrupted too.) Attention is always the number #1 discipline fix, it really is.

  2. You are just a breath of fresh air! Thank you for taking time to post these things & share your wealth of knowledge:) We are past the toddler days, but this still helps me in my parenting!

  3. I so agree with everything you said regarding toddlers! My youngest of 6 is now 15.. I hope many young parents find this article and follow your tips/ insight. They do work and it will help to raise a happy toddler.
    Thanks for taking the time to post !

  4. you are the best, sarah! i don't have toddlers anymore, but these posts have been just as applicable to my older kids. thank you for sharing them. i agree with everything 100%. attention and love has always been our discipline fix, too.

  5. My husband and I always check ourselves and say "you punish disobedience, not immaturity." Deliberate disobedience is a completely different heart issue than just not being mature enough to understand their behavior quite yet. This is such a good post- I'll read again and share with friends!

  6. I hope you never stop blogging - your words are such an encouragement! Perhaps there is a book in your future??

  7. Great list of advice for little ones. I hope you write something or give advice on anger in toddlers. Lately our oldest (almost 4 year old) has been getting angry and yelling at us when he doesn't want to do something. I think that he has so many feelings about his little brother (almost 1 year old) that is now walking and needs a little more supervision but we still don't know how to redirect the anger from our oldest.

  8. Wow, I so need this and it makes perfect sense to me. My toddler is going through a phase of hitting, biting or pulling my hair usually when she is tired. She's also acting up a bit a nursery (totally out of character). My parents/sister seem to think I'm not disaplining her enough (shes not quiet 2 and a half yet) and my best response is to bite her back! I really can not believe this, she's not a naughty child usually. She also does not seem to understand things like "naughty steps" but seems to respond best to my husband taking her away from me for some quiet time to calm down. I totally agree that biting/hitting our children is not an option and how does this teach them to treat us nicely too! Personally I think it is a phase and an age thing and shouting/punisher her is not best but it's so hard when my family tells me I'm not parenting her right! I think I will print this post out as a reminder that my thoughts on parenting are not as bad as my family think. Thank you

  9. Sarah, I needed this.
    I have kids ages 5,3,2 &1. I'm tired of giving threats for discipline and need to get off the phone, put on my big girl panties, and do what I need to: Engage

    I was doing so well and then fell off the horse (as it happens time after time, and not just with the phone, but attitude--phones are a form of escape). This is the push I needed to get back on track once more and to dig in!
    Love your blog,

  10. Thank you for this series and this post. I have been using this for a few days now ans it has made our days so much easier and way less fighting from my 3 year old :)

  11. Thanks so much for this series Sarah!!! I just love it! Was wondering if u would consider sharing with us an example of what your routine with your toddlers looked like?

  12. again, you're a breath of fresh air……ahhhh