When Does Discipline Begin?

April 11, 2013 at 5:43 am (Attachment Parenting, Positive Discipline)

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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.

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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.


  1. fraurab said,

    You make it sound so easy! I think my problem is being frustrated (and/or tired, stressed, overwhelmed) while trying to discipline calmly, and that doesn’t work.

    • Kelly said,

      This post simplifies what goes into positive parenting…which, when it comes down to it, is pretty simple. BUT….it is not easy! Definitely not. For me, it is daily consciousness and practice for where I want to be as a parent. Plenty of mistakes, which means plenty of opportunities to try again.

  2. Shelly B said,

    Your thoughts…
    My 2.5 yr old has sunny days & stormy ones. He was a high needs baby who is now a toddler with a persistent personality.

    We still nurse and co-sleep. He is loved. And, loving. Deeply sensitive and firey.

    This morning I asked him to get ready so we could go to a friend’s house to play – something he loves. He asked to do finger painting while I got dressed.Impractical. I suggested beading and placed a dish of beads down near him. He dumped them all over the floor.

    I reacted by letting him know (calmly) that he would need to pick them up before we could go and that I would help as soon as I was dressed (5 mins).

    He refused every offer of help and so I cancelled our plan. I stood firm and he became distraught. He said he was “too sad” to pick up. So… we nursed and soothed. When he was calm I tried again. No dice.
    What would you have done differently AND what would you do to end the situation???

    Thank you!!!

  3. Shelly B said,

    Ok… Just read your other posts. I focused on the dumping instead of the feelings behind the dumping. He dumped to show me he didn’t want beads. I could have interpreted that for him and explained that he could have told me his feelings instead of making a mess. I could have apologized for not being a better listener. Then, I could have said, “Now let’s hug and get these picked up so we can get to our friend’s house.”

    • Kelly said,

      Shelly, thanks for this example…sounds like your son is 2. 😉 It also sounds like you set a limit and held it with empathy and understanding, which is awesome! So stick with it..after you took time to calm down, revisit the issue. Let him know that he needs to put the beads back in the box and you are willing to help him. You might get started so that he sees that you actually are helping him. If he is standing unmoving and it looks like you’ll end up doing everything, stop halfway. You can say, “OK, they’re half done, you can do the other half.” And let that be the next thing he does before he moves onto anything else. No other games, activities, playing etc, until the beads are put away.

      He may cry again, and that’s OK. Acknowledge his feelings and re-state what needs to happen. “I know you’re mad about this. That’s OK. I know you don’t think it’s fun. When the beads are put away, we’ll move on to something fun.”

      These posts might help with some different examples (my son was older here (5 or 6), so he had a little more language skill than a 2.5-yr-old would, but the core concepts are applicable. Just use what you can from them):

      Parenting with Firmness and Kindness…and Firmness”

      “Tips for Holding and Setting Limits”

      • Shelly B said,

        Ok… So that’s what I did amd literally THREE HOURS LATER the beads were still all over the floor. Periodically, he would start to pick them up and then throw them all over again. He asked to nurse at the table after brunch at 1030 & fell asleep sitting up – naptime is noon. I swear he did this to avoid clean up.

        He slept for an hour and woke up crying about the beads: “I no like to pick up beads, Mama!”

        So, now I am thinking my instincts were right, but I didn’t want to die on bead mountain!


        • Sue B said,

          When my gkids (girl 7, boys 5 and 3) don’t want to help pick up what they have been playing with, I make a game out of it. Make sure you are wearing a T-shirt and he is too. Suggest a contest to see how many beads he can pick up in a pouch made from holding the front of his T-shirt up (demonstrate with your T-shirt), then sit with the container in your lap. Show him how he can dump the beads into the container (they will make a great noise!), then keep encouraging him until the beads are all picked up! Of course, having three kids doing it, it becomes a contest to see who can put the most in their T-shirt at a time! Works for me!!

        • Kelly said,

          I agree your instincts were right. I’d just push the beads out of the way so no one will step on them, and keep coming back to them. Even if it is much much later. “I know you don’t like to pick up the beads, and they need to be picked up. When the beads are put away, we’ll go outside/ play a game/ do some art/ blow bubbles/ etc.” Cleaning up what he’s thrown is important and needs to happen before he moves onto another activity.

          • Shelly B said,

            Thank You, Kelly! So grateful for the guidance. 0-2 came so easy for me even with constant nursing and massive sleep deprivation. The love, the nurturing, the surrendering, creating routines and rhythms – all easy. Dealing with limits brings up my own abusive childhood. Knowing the difference is a learning curve for me.

  4. Link Love for Friday, April 12th « peaceful parenting | simplify parenting | stop yelling said,

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  5. Sue Barrell said,

    I guess I am an old fashioned Grandma. . . Look after my gkids 2 days a week (girl 7, boy 5, boy 3) and all the family is on the same page re discipline. No smacking, setting clear boundaries, use the “Thinking Corner” (we don’t call it the naughty corner as this has negative connotations) and when, for example, potty training, we say “oh you’re so clever!” not good (using good and the implication of the opposite, bad, also has negative connotations). Do use Good, for example, when kids help tidy up, “Good job”. But there are times when a little ‘pain’ can be useful. The 3 year old started biting. He bit me and, calmly, I made eye contact, told him this was unacceptable, gave him a nip on his chubby little arm and said, “now you know what it feels like. Would you like others to bite you?” Of course he cried – not from the pain of the nip (it was gentle) but with shock that Grandma would do such a thing! He hasn’t bitten anyone since. It’s like when a child is told not to touch something that is hot. They usually try it and then completely understand why they shouldn’t touch hot things. Sometimes experience is the best teacher.
    Sue B
    Brisbane Australia (formerly of Portland)

    • Kelly said,

      Sue, I agree that experience, making mistakes and leaning “the hard way” is an excellent teacher. Natural consequences work great. When a child touches a hot surface and learns what that feels like, that is a natural consequence. And you’re right–he will not want to do that again. Biting a child to show him what it feels like is not a natural consequence, it’s intended to cause him pain. I also agree with you that it works…pain and punishment absolutely work to motivate children behave a certain way! BUT…and this is the essence of my work in parent education…they work for different reasons than what is most effective long-term. They work because they instill fear and shame in a child. When, what’s far more effective in the long run is to teach a child to do the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do. Using kindness, connection, and respect allows a child to feel his sense of worthiness and belonging and grow up confident, not afraid. This whole blog is dedicated to non-punitive (and non-rewarding) parenting, so I’d love for you to take a look around if you’re interested in more of the “how”s and “why”s on this topic.

      “Parenting Without Punishments…What?!”

      • Shelly B said,

        Post note:
        Success! Not with the beads. But, today my guy dumped a bag of sand toys in the garage while getting something he wanted. He started to walk away from the mess and I calmly said, “Whoops! The sand toys are all over the floor. Let’s pick those up.” The boy, “I no want to.” Me, “We need to pick these up together before you play with those fun cars.” “OK.” Ans, he did!!!! I believe the bead incident built an understanding that allowed this new incident to happen quickly! Firmness works! And, I cando it!

        • Sue B said,

          He is learning!

        • Kelly said,

          Yay, that’s so encouraging to hear! The toddler years are *tough* as kids develop their autonomy and will, but just like you showed, you can be firm and kind to set limits. Way to go, mama!

  6. Larry Newman said,

    There are so many great thoughts and ideas about parenting and I am so appreciative to the many parents who have come before me taking the lumps, the bruises, the bumps, the agony and the tremendous time and energy to raise their children.
    Like many of you, training (my alternative to discipline) I believe begins at birth. And, in light of that one of the greatest pieces of counsel I received as a new dad was straight from the scripture: “bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). Training and instruction, over and over and over! Raising children is like sharpening a sword, you don’t just run the blade over the stone once, you go back and forth and back and forth until it is sharpened. Then, at times the blade becomes dull so you repeat!
    With three children all about two years apart we have a spectrum of chances to train and instruct. At times it goes wonderfully…give instruction once and they follow. At other times it is like the two-year-old from the previous post, it takes multiple times to remind them of their instruction. But, like the author stated, we as parents decide the direction the child should go and that is the way we go.
    Another verse in 2 Timothy comes in to play and that is “doctrine, reproof and instruction regarding salvation in Christ, which is training in righteousness”.
    1) As parents we give the doctrine (instruction, the way we would like them to follow)
    2) If necessary, if they do not follow we reprove them by giving them the doctrine again and asking for their submission
    3) Ultimately, if they have been given instruction and they decide to continue going their own way we correct them.
    Training them up in regarding the salvation of our Lord Jesus Christ (his work saved us, not ours), is our instruction as parents. As parents we were never given the direction to “make our children obey”. This was given to them. We give them the opportunity to obey, stick with our instruction and they ultimately will obey.
    I don’t believe I have everything “figured out” but I do love the blue-print our Father God has given. There is a reason we do not see a lot of specific instruction in the new testament regarding raising children because the general idea of raising our children up in Christ was enough. God desires to work in each and every parent to help them understand their very unique and wonderful child. God is the ultimate parent, the most wonderful, loving, forgiving, long-suffering and faithful parent of all. He desires that all of us raise our children in the manner that blesses him because ultimately all of our children were designed to transition from our authority to His. As we work with him to raise our children up to submit and obey us then this will surely go well with them and their relationship with their heavenly Father.
    Praise God for his perfect plan to save us through Christ’s work!

  7. danandkasha said,

    It’s simple, but not easy at all. It’s exhausting, but so worth it.

    • Larry Newman said,

      Agreed! Some of the greatest rewards in life come from raising children. Often my now stay-at-home wife (formally a college English instructor) struggles with this hoping she is “contributing”. What better contribution can you make than wonderful, loving, kind, sweet submissive children who know 1) how to follow and often because of it 2) lead!

  8. Sunday Surf: April 7-13 | Old New Legacy said,

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