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John Rosemond is America's most widely-read parenting authority! He is a best-selling author, columnist, speaker, and family psychologist.

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Discipline and young children

Q: Is it possible to discipline a child below the age of two and if so, how?

A: If by "discipline" you mean teaching and enforcing proper behavior, the answer is no. Discipline of that sort is only possible with a child who is (a) paying significant attention to his or her parents, (b) tuned in to parental approval, and (c) capable of remembering consequences. Typically, those traits/abilities begin emerging around the second birthday and are not adequately established until age three. Despite this limitation, however, parents can and should begin laying good disciplinary foundations prior to age two.

The behavior of infants and young toddlers is driven largely by two powerful internal forces: physical need (e.g., hunger results in crying) and the powerful urge to explore and master the environment (the child moves impulsively toward and wants to touch and/or taste anything that attracts his attention). With this age child, parental discipline should take aim at these two characteristics. In each case, the goal is to regulate and provide appropriate structure, while ensuring that the need is fully met.

With respect to physical needs like hunger and sleep, that's accomplished by establishing routines that take individual differences into consideration. Some infants, for example, require feeding more often than others, but most pediatricians and child development experts agree that feeding intervals should not be closer together than two hours with a newborn and three with a six-month-old. Likewise, some babies sleep more than others, but a general rule for bedtime is the earlier a young child is put to bed, the longer and more soundly the child will sleep. Routines can be flexible, but they should be fairly regular, while taking into consideration that a change in circumstances may require adjusting a given routine. So, for example, the interval between the first two feedings of the day might be three hours, while the interval between the second and third might be four, and that might need to be adjusted while the family is on vacation.

Discipline of a child's need to explore and experiment is accomplished by childproofing the house such that the child can freely search and touch/taste while holding to a minimum the chance that the child can either inadvertently harm himself or cause damage to household items. A properly childproofed home also benefits parents because of the reduced need for immediate supervision.

The first two years of life are the first "season" of parenthood, during which parents place the child at the center of attention and orbit around him in a near-constant ministry of service. Their purpose is three-fold: (1) to convince the child that he is wanted and loved, (2) to provide for the child's basic needs (including the need for adequate stimulation and opportunity to explore), and (3) to prevent the child from hurting himself. It is possible, during this first phase of parenthood, to establish certain boundaries (e.g., "don't touch), but the fact that the child is at the center of parental attention mitigates against truly effective discipline. Between a child's second and third birthdays, parents should gently, patiently, but purposefully remove the child from the center of their attention and position themselves at the center of his or her attention. Having accomplished that, the true discipline—or "disciple-ing"—of the child can begin.

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