I am the mother of a toddler. Does that bring visions of dramatic meltdowns when the hot stove is declared off limits? Or wrestling matches on the changing table? Or high-pitched screams when the washcloth appears after mealtime? If so, then your visions are accurate. On a daily basis I find myself handling situations I never would have conjured up in my mind before entering toddler-dom: the dog competing with a small human for her breakfast; the rabbit moving over to make space in her hutch for a biped playmate; the baby sister being buried under every toy in the nursery…if it can be imagined then it must be attempted is the motto that my little boy seems to live by; thus, the urgent need for boundaries.
His unending supply of antics are laughable when read or recollected, but they are serious proof of his need for vigilant parenting. What would happen if I let him eat anything and everything he desired? Would he be a better person if I let him climb on the neighbor’s motorcycle like he begs to do whenever he sees it? Should I laugh when he whacks his sister on the head with a toy truck? Is standing on the chair or climbing on the rabbit cage an allowable activity? Am I wise to turn a blind eye if he runs away when I tell him to come? The obvious answer is that my creative, energetic, imaginative toddler must learn to respect and obey the authorities in his life, starting with his parents. Neglecting to teach him to do so would be negligent parenting at best, abusive parenting at worst.
Yet if the answer is so obvious, why am I, and numerous other parents, so hesitant to discipline (in whatever form we deem best)? Oftentimes I am tired and don’t feel like chasing after him and addressing his disobedience, but I suppose my hesitation mainly stems from a fear of being mean or unfair. A dozen questions zip through my mind: “Did he hear me when I called him?” “Is it possible that he didn’t understand or forgot the rule?” “Will he be afraid of me or avoid me if I discipline him?” I give chance after chance after chance for my child to respond, but in doing so I am reinforcing in his braing the idea that delayed obedience is acceptable when in fact it is actually disobedience. Obedience to authority is the first step in training a child to assume responsibility for his actions; he learns that he does, in fact, have a choice in the matter – to obey or accept the consequence of choosing to disobey. If there is no immediate follow-through when parental commands are ignored or disobeyed, my child learns that the lack of consequence is the rule rather than the exception. Later on in life, this negative reinforcement will be more painful to him than my daily disciplining of him will ever be.
My word of encouragement to all of you fellow parents of toddlers is this: tell yourself repeatedly that disciplining is a vital aspect of loving your little person. Boundaries are an essential tool in keeping our little ones safe, happy, and healthy; however, there will be no boundaries if they are not consistently enforced. The more consistent we are in disciplining unwanted behavior the less we will have to do it – we all know how sharp those little minds are. And one more thing, let’s encourage one other in our parenting. We all know how hard it is to be parents and maintaining those boundaries is one of the hardest parts of the job. We can use all the support we can get.