Ask the Dad Parenting Advice: On Disobedient Toddlers, Punishment, and Guilt

by on October 11th, 2010
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Author’s note: Ask The Dad is now being published three days a week. I intend to post Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays.

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Question

My 2-year-old is the best thing ever to happen to me, and I’m terribly protective of him. So why do I get so frustrated and angry with him? Lately he has been throwing stuff at me or at the TV. I have tried being calm, distracting him, using a tone, or giving him a tap on the butt to show it hurts when objects hit people. Today he threw things repeatedly for one hour. I picked him up and put him on sofa and shouted at him. I felt so bad as I saw the terror on his little face. He then got back down and started throwing things again. I slapped him and he fell over. I feel so bad and can’t get this image out of my mind. I feel like the worst mother in the world, and I hate the person that I am. Am I the one making him like this because he sees me doing it?

Answer

Don’t hate yourself. And don’t hate your toddler. Of course, if you want to hate the boy’s behavior, go right ahead. You won’t be the first.

Let me start by assuring you that your frustration is not the sign of bad mothering. Everyone who has parented a toddler understands that feeling. You question how you can become angry at a boy you love so much. I counter by saying that we can easily become angry with those we love. That very love that makes you protective has invested you heavily in the boy. As such, his actions will frequently inspire an emotional response. And when those actions turn negative, you can expect to feel a similarly negative emotion.

Lots of toddlers throw things. If they enjoy the action or the results of the action, they will continue unless you stop them. You have explained to the boy that it is wrong to throw things. But at that age, many kids don’t care whether you approve. Toddlers think the world revolves around them, and they often act accordingly, doing what they like. Stop trying to convince him to stop, and instead make him stop.

Obviously the punishments you have administered so far doesn’t cut it. Your loud voice shocked him, but either the surprise was not sufficient to make him want to stop throwing things, or he didn’t connect the yelling to the conduct. When parents yell at children all the time, kids learn to tune them out. But it sounds as if you don’t yell very often. In that case, occasionally raising your voice can become a powerful tool. Your goal is not to scare your child, but to let him know that the situation has changed, that he cannot afford to ignore you.

In this instance, words alone did not fix the problem. But going forward, once you establish you are willing to back up tough talk, you might have better luck with the stern admonishment or the occasional raised tone.

Now, on to your son’s behavior.

The boy isn’t throwing things because you tapped him a few times and slapped him once. Remember, his behavior predated yours. It has become popular to blame children’s disobedience on physical punishments from parents. But most of the studies purported to prove this fact either prove something entirely different or bias themselves through the nature of the questions.

While excessive punishment in any form can spark rebellion, your actions so far come nowhere close to eliciting such a response. Should you slap a toddler hard enough to knock him down? No. So don’t make that mistake again. However, I’ll bet he stopped throwing things after the slap.

Find a happy medium. Try three swats on the butt, harder than the taps you mentioned, next time he throws something. If you don’t want to spank, try taking away his favorite toy for a time or not letting him watch his favorite TV show. Whatever you do, tie it directly to the conduct. If the boy doesn’t stop throwing things, increase the severity of the punishment. He can lose two toys or miss the show for two days. At some point, when the cost of disobedience gets too high to justify the pleasure of the objectionable conduct, he will stop. And he will finally learn that when you say “no,” you mean it.

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