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The Discipline Hack That Actually Got My Toddler to Behave

Photograph by Twenty20

I'll be honest, I'm not great at disciplining my toddler. I didn’t babysit much and I never really disciplined kids all that often. So, when it came to my own, I was golden until she turned into a toddler. The tantrums, the defiance, the behaviors: I was clueless how to handle them, and yelling and correcting her constantly was doing nothing.

My daughter is bold, outgoing and loves the world around her. She takes off running in stores, sticks her hands in her water glass at the table, refuses to participate in Mommy & Me classes and grinds Play-Doh into the rug. I was definitely not in control.

One day, in a parent education class I was taking, we were discussing expectations for our toddlers—namely, letting our toddler know what the expectation was in any situation. There are rules for walking in the parking lots, how to eat at the dinner table without throwing your plate and playing with markers without coloring all over the walls.

At first, I was skeptical. How can a 2-year-old be expected to follow the rules just by telling them what they are? But it couldn't get any worse, so I decided to throw caution to the wind and try it out over the next week.

On our trip to the store that afternoon, I told my daughter, “Now, you can walk next to me, but if you run away, you will need to sit in the cart.” I gave her my best Mom Look, and she and I started walking toward the household items. And she stayed by me. The girl who used to take off running was actually walking next to me.

This tiny terror, the one I thought couldn’t possibly understand my expectations of her, knew she didn’t follow the rules.

When we got home and she wanted to play with her markers, I explained to her that markers are for paper only and if she colors on the table, we need to put them away. And you know what? She kept the markers on the paper. It was like magic.

The next day, she didn’t follow the rules and drew on her hand while I was washing the dishes. “Oh, that’s too bad,” I said, “Mama said that you can only color on paper and you didn’t listen, so now we need to put them away.” And wonder of all wonders, even though she cried, it wasn’t her usual tantrum. This tiny terror, the one I thought couldn’t possibly understand my expectations of her, knew she hadn't followed the rules.

I'm not gonna lie, it’s hard sticking to my guns, especially when I threaten that we’re going to leave the play date if she doesn’t listen and she breaks the rule anyway. It sucks having to leave, when I’m the one who really needs the socialization. But setting expectations with her and making sure I follow through on what I say—it’s been a total game-changer for us.

I recently took it one step further and started asking her what the rules were before we did something. I set her water cup down for lunch and asked her what the rules were. She waved her little hands at me, looked at me solemnly and said, “No hands!” Unbelievable. My barely 2 1/2-year-old could tell me the expectation before I had to tell her.

It’s not a perfect system. Sometimes I forget and when she acts out, I kick myself for not setting the limits sooner. And there are times she just plain doesn’t want to listen because, hello, toddler! But parenting has gotten so much more manageable. Any sort of hack that can do that is worth its weight in gold to this exhausted mama.

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