Parents often ask, “When should I start disciplining my child? At what age is it appropriate?” It is a common question of when it’s time to transition from the nurturing parenting of babyhood to using more of the “discipline” tools of toddlerhood and beyond.
To answer this, we first need to clarify what discipline actually is. I have come away from using the term “discipline” in the traditional sense. That is, in which the definitions include “punishment” and “control gained by enforcing obedience or order.” (Merriam-Webster)
I think in this age of informed parenting, in which we know so much more about how children grow, learn, and thrive, that definition of discipline as applied to parenting is becoming obsolete. When we know that children respond to adult leadership when a respectful relationship is in place, there is no need to adhere to the authoritarian style of traditional “discipline” to raise competent kids. When we realize that behavior is a form of communication, relationship must be the goal in order to foster that communication. And when relationship is the goal, there is no need for punishment. The true necessity, then, is to build and sustain securely attached relationships and not let the shame and fear of “discipline” get in the way.
Discipline (when it is used in conjunction with the attachment process) means responding to behavior…pleasant, unpleasant, or something in between. Discipline is the response we bring; the communication we cultivate; the relationship we preserve. It’s…
- setting a limit
- helping a child calm down in the face of strong emotions
- creating a morning or bedtime routine
- providing an infant with a nursing necklace for his busy hands
- a nightly bedtime back rub
- letting an infant know that you are about to pick her up
- baby-proofing the outlets
- giving a preschooler choices
- removing a restless toddler from a restaurant
- asking a child for his thoughts
- helping a child sleep by transitioning yourself out of the bedtime routine
- changing a diaper
- seeing a child become frustrated and not immediately rescuing him
- brainstorming with a child to find a solution to a problem
- thanking a child for her helpful contributions and kindness
- giving a baby one piece of food at a time on her plate during a ‘throwing’ stage.
- allowing a child to cry
- rewinding and taking a do-over
- modeling an apology
These are just a few of the kinds of actions that are considered discipline that don’t necessarily look like discipline–actions in which the parent’s intent is not to control, but to guide. The intent is not to contribute shame, but to invite communication. The intent is not to prove authority, but to support a child’s developmental process. The intent is not to cause pain, but to meet a need.
All this to say that discipline begins when behavior begins; when communiction begins; when our desire to guide our kids begins; when our intent to support their growth begins; when our aim to meet their needs begins. Discipline begins when our relationship begins: at birth.
The best discipline doesn’t look like discipline because you’ve been doing it your child’s whole life.
As infants, we repond to our children’s needs. We hold them, feed them, change them, respond to their communication, ensure their sleep, health, and safety. Our infants grow; their behavior and methods of communication change, but their needs stay the same. They need closeness, bonding, security, trust, food, sleep, safety, understanding, acceptance, and security. Parents think discipline has to start at a certain age, but it really just needs to continue from birth. Because the discipline we’re talking about is tuning in to our alpha instinct; it comes from the heart, aims for connection, and invites a child to depend on us to meet their needs.
Example: Saying no to a child’s request for candy leads to a tantrum and the subsequent question of how to “discipline” her.
The Need: (is not the candy.) The needs of the child are proper nutrition, confident authority from the parent, healthy limits set, and emotional connection with the parent.
Your Response: Kindly and firmly say no (meets the need for limits). Be confident in your decision (meets the need for authority). Accept her feelings and tears about it. Empathize to show you understand (meets the need for emotional connection). Don’t give her candy (meets the need for physical nutrition).
A simple example, but all behavior that seems to need “discipline” follows a similar model. When does discipline begin? It begins with bonding with our babies, and continues with responding to their communication and meeting their needs through every stage of development. There is not an “age of discipline,” but a lifetime of relationship-building.