When I speak to groups of parents, I sometimes get questions about the best way to discipline infants. I begin my answer by saying that discipline is teaching. (In fact, the words “discipline” and “disciple” have the same Latin root.) But to teach effectively, you have to understand how your child is thinking at different stages of development.
Although we now know infants can do much more than we had ever imagined, their thinking skills are extremely primitive, and will remain that way for several years. Even after they’ve started speaking, toddlers still can’t understand abstract concepts like “danger” so verbal warnings are useless. Parents of precocious and highly verbal children sometimes forget this. They’ll tell their child, who’s lunging at their household pet with outstretched hands, “Now, don’t poke the cat in the eye. Remember, Bobby, don’t poke!” Bobby hears the words and dutifully replies, “Don’t poke!”
His parents think this means their young son understands their warning. In fact, he is only mimicking the last part of what he heard. They soon discover this when they hear first the cat and then Bobby scream. Sure enough, he tried to poke the cat in the eye, and was quickly scratched for his efforts.
Warning, spanking, and threatening infants are not only ineffective as ways to discipline them, they’re counterproductive. The only way to discipline a baby is to protect him from his natural curiosity and lack of judgment.
This is known as environmental control. If you don’t want your baby to stick his fingers in the electrical outlets, you’ll have to put safety caps on those outlets. If you don’t want him to drink poisonous cleaning fluids, you’ll have to keep all cleaning supplies in a locked cabinet. Your baby has absolutely no way of knowing how dangerous something might be. In fact, the very concept of danger is too abstract for him to understand. All he knows is that these, like so many other things, look attractive and he wants to explore them.
That also means that your baby never does things because he’s out to get you even though it may feel that way at times. Willful disobedience is also too abstract and complex for him to understand. Whenever you think your baby is being spiteful, look for another reason to explain his behavior, such as hunger or too much stimulation.
Once you understand what’s going on, you can use your child’s natural desire to explore new things to your advantage. Many parents of older babies dislike going to the grocery store or supermarket with them because their babies fuss and cry. One common reason for that fussiness is that they’re frustrated as they sit in the back of the shopping cart. They see all these brightly colored boxes, cans and fruit, but can’t touch them.
What my wife and I used to do with our son, which worked very well, was to begin each shopping trip by giving him something we were going to buy that he could hold and explore. We chose things that were brightly colored (an orange) or that made noise (a box of cereal), but that he couldn’t destroy and that weren’t dangerous if he accidentally opened or dropped them. Each of these items kept him amused for a minute or two as we cruised through the store and finished our shopping.
As soon as he became bored and started reaching for something on a shelf, we’d give him a new item to hold and put the old one back in the cart. The only other thing we had to do was keep the cart in the center of the aisle so that he couldn’t actually reach any of the shelves if we didn’t spot his boredom in time. By using environmental control, we turned a potentially aggravating experience into an outing that was occasionally even fun.