Starting Early: How to Discipline Your Baby

Elizabeth Pantley black-girl-full-of-wonder

When you look at your innocent baby you probably can’t imagine that she’ll ever have a tantrum or decorate the walls with her crayons. You might wonder at what point discipline will begin in your child’s life. While every child – including yours – will make her share of mischief, discipline really isn’t about tantrums or writing on the walls, and it doesn’t have a specific starting date. It’s about helping your child to make the right choices in life. Discipline doesn’t start with the first tantrum; it begins the first day that you hold your baby in your arms. Every interaction you have with your baby teaches her something, and it’s the cumulative effect of all of your life lessons that will come together as the basis for the person that she will become. No magic formula exists for perfect day-to-day discipline, but a few general philosophies can help you as you develop your own approach to raising your child.

Treat your baby as you would like her to treat others.

We all know the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Applying this principle to your interactions with your baby builds a foundation for your child’s views of human relationships. She may not say much while she’s young, but make no mistake: She takes in every nuance of your actions. So the principles by which you live – the golden rule and other basic tenets of civilized human interaction – are those she will simply accept as the norm.
As your child grows older, this foundation will have a tremendous impact on how she responds to your teaching and guidance, since trust is a key component to all human relationships. When your baby is honouring you with a world-class tantrum or your toddler is battling bedtime and waking you up all night, parenting under this principle can be difficult. But if you treat him with the respect to which he is due, he will develop the trust and reciprocate the respect that will keep the doors for learning open.

The decisions that you make for your baby will affect the decisions she makes for herself.

Your baby is unable to make her own choices, which puts you in a very influential position. During babyhood, your child will begin to create her impressions of the world and her place in it. She will begin to formulate her values and self control. When you say, “No, we don’t touch the fireplace, it’s hot!” you teach your child an important fact that will become part of his growing self-discipline.

The things you do now set patterns for the future.

The ways in which you respond to your baby’s actions will affect her future behaviour. The first time that she rips a page out of a storybook, throws her food off the high chair, or hits a playmate, she will absorb your reaction; it then will become a piece of the information file that she is creating to guide her future actions. Your goal is to firmly and gently correct her, while guiding her towards the proper behavior. First, remove the book from her hands, or separate her from the playmate, and then apply the most important step – teach how to properly use a book, or explain how to ask politely for a turn with a toy.

Because babies do not have good long-term memories, many such situations will occur until she can make proper decisions based on past circumstances. Over time, your child will demonstrate that all the previous lessons you’ve tried to teach have indeed made their mark.

Always ask yourself, “Why?”

When your baby does something that disturbs you, the first thing to do is to consider why she is behaving that way. For example, if your baby slides a stack of paperclips into your DVD player, take a second to figure out why she would do such a thing. When you do, you’ll realize that she’s watched you slide things into the player, so she’s just mimicking your actions – not understanding, of course, that DVDs work just fine, but paperclips don’t. By asking “why,” you’ve just realized that what’s she has done isn’t misbehaving, but rather engaging her developing curiosity about the world. The discipline involved in this situation is a lesson about how DVD players work.

Ask yourself, “How can I teach?”

Consider how to teach your baby what she needs to know. This may be as simple as an explanation and demonstration. “We don’t put paper clips in here. We put DVDs in here. See? Want to try one?” Over time, and many such lessons, your baby will begin to apply what she’s learning in one area to other areas as well.

Now’s the time for you to learn, too.

No one is born knowing how to be a parent. It’s a job that changes day to day and that sometimes seems to require just a little more skill than we have! Now is a good time to read a few parenting books, take a class, or subscribe to magazines for parents. The more you learn, the more prepared you will be to take each new step along with your child’s developing personality.

This article is an excerpt from Gentle Baby Care by Elizabeth Pantley. (McGraw-Hill, 2003). Elizabeth Pantley is a mother of four and a parenting educator. She is the author of many books for parents including Gentle Baby Care and The No-Cry Sleep Solution.

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