Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Disciplining a Baby?

Sly is thirteen months old now. He's at an age where he's able to make a lot of trouble in a very short time, but still young enough that I'm not sure he understands which things he's "allowed" to do or not do. We've done our best to baby-proof the house, to stop most trouble and messes before they start. But there are still a few areas of the house or our routine that we can't really do much about.

For example, we have five tall bookshelves in our bedroom, and there's another one in Sly's room with all his kids' books. One of Sly's favorite past-times is ripping books out of the shelves and throwing them onto the floor. Not only does this make a huge mess, but it's harmful to the books, many of which are old. But what can we do to stop it? Block off entire shelves with sheets of cardboard and duct tape? Prevent Sly from ever going into half the rooms in our house? I'd much rather be able to just teach him not to mess with the books.

He always hurts the one cat (the other one steers entirely clear of him). Sly pulls at his fur, and his ears and tail. The cat gets mad and sometimes hisses, but is too gentle to really fight back. It's impossible to "baby-proof" a cat! And he's such a friendly cat that he always wants to be near people - even little ones who pull his fur - and so he's always putting himself right into Sly's path of destruction. On a number of occasions, I've actually had to slap Sly's hands pretty hard to make him let go of a fistful of fur. He does not yet understand the concept of "gentle", no matter how many times I've tried to teach him the right way to touch a kitty.

Another big problem is him throwing food on the ground when he's in the high chair. You think the food is on its way to his mouth, and then suddenly, he throws it triumphantly towards the floor. How do you stop that?

Tom and I have been trying to stop these sorts of behaviors, but with no effect whatsoever. We'll usually tell Sly "no ________" (no throwing food, no touching the books, etc.) while trying to get eye contact with him, and making a "serious" face. If we can, we pull him away from the "danger zone" or try to distract him with something else. But it simply doesn't work. More often than not, he thinks it's funny. I know he throws food just to get attention sometimes. And with the books...when we say no, and pull him away, he's always smiling and sometimes even laughing. He thinks it's a game!

What are we supposed to do about this? I haven't read any books or anything about disciplining. Although I'm not sure I even want to right now. But I wish I did know how old a baby needs to be to connect certain bad behaviors with consequences.

Tom and I have been talking about maybe trying a "time out" system. Neither of us were given time outs as kids, so we don't really know how it works. As far as I can gather, the effectiveness of time outs is that you put a child by themselves in a corner or something, and intentionally don't give them your attention. Because attention is often the thing they were seeking with their misbehavior, and you need to show them that that is not the proper way to get it. Is this right? Maybe there's more to it than that.

Anyways, last night at the dinner table, Sly kept throwing food after repeatedly being "reprimanded" by mom and dad. So I said to Tom, "let's give him a time-out right now. Tell him he's in timeout and turn his chair around so he can't see us anymore." Tom did, and Sly immediately started screaming. Obviously, he didn't like his punishment. But I'm not sure if he's old enough that he will be able to start connecting timeout to the things he does.

Any advice? Should we keep trying the timeout thing, or try a different tactic? Is he old enough to learn this yet?


  1. So this is an area that Keith and I disagree on, but--I firmly believe in spanking. Because I don't think a child of Sly's age can understand time outs (unless maybe you put him in his crib?), but they do understand physical consequences; and because they're wearing a diaper, a swat on a bottom doesn't really hurt anyway.

    I think that spanking has become really stigmatized in our culture, but I was spanked, and my cousins were spanked. The oldest kids in their family are my age; the youngest is about seven. And their kids are the sweetest, happiest, and best behaved kids I know. I honestly believe that physical discipline when kids are young instills obedience in them when they're older.

    That being said, I have no idea if Sly is old enough for discipline! I do think kids can learn obedience BEFORE they're actually responsible for what they do, if that makes sense. Maybe a swat on the bottom followed by distraction from the thing he needs to stay away from? Also about the eye contact--that sounds right, I've always been told eye contact when saying no is REALLY important. My mom has told me that making the kid look at you by holding their face and saying, gently but firmly, "Look at me," lets them know you are serious. :) (I don't remember her holding my face ever, but I do remember her saying "look at me" when I was older and misbehaving, and it was the cue that it was time to STOP misbehaving before I got in actual trouble.)

    My mom also says that it really is a struggle of the wills and can take time, but the important thing is that the boundaries are clear and the child learns that they will be enforced, in whatever way you decide to do that--and I think that consistency is something Sly can learn now.

    Good luck. :)

  2. Yeah, in my family ,we were spanked - at least when we were young. I don't really remember it for myself, but I remember seeing my younger brothers get spanked. I don't think either Tom or I has "anti-spanking" sentiments. But I'm just not certain if it would really be effective or not. Also, Sly's cloth-diaper-butt is SO padded, I really don't think a spank would even effect him at all!

  3. Spanking is a definite NO under 12 months--they've done studies on babies under that age who are spanked, and the babies have higher cortisol (stress hormone) levels in stressful situations than babies who are not spanked, because babies that little DO NOT understand why they are being hit, so whenever they are exposed to stress, they react worse. Cortisol is linked to all sorts of bad stuff. So, definitely no spanking under 12 months. Of course Sly is older than that now.

    This is a good balanced (but still anti-spanking) article:

    Gordon feels VERY strongly anti-spanking. I'm of the opinion that spanking limited to rare and dangerous behavior (not throwing food onto the floor, but things like attempting to run into the street) is ok, but I think it's important for both parents to agree, so we won't be spanking at all.

    Of course that's just what we DON'T do, not what we DO...

    Greg Popcak and Ray Guarendi are two reputable Catholic discipline writers. Popcak is "no spanking ever" and Guarendi is "limited spanking (not on babies, not over six years, for serious offenses only)". I'd recommend either for sure.

    It isn't true that there's no such thing as a wrong way to parent... as Catholics we should know that... but it doesn't mean there is only one acceptable way either... just as the Church has the Roman Rite and many Eastern Rites, they are different and serve different people.

  4. Just as a thought... imagine how difficult it is for Sly to tell the difference between a chasing/catching/tickling/releasing/chasing/catching/tickling game, and a throwing books/picking up Sly/putting Sly down somewhere else/Sly going back to the bookshelf/throwing books "game".

    Babies like those kind of pattern/ritual activities! It must make no sense to them sometimes why one thing is ok and another isn't.

    I was never spanked and by about six I was a pretty well behaved kid. I had a rough teenage period, but that was for other reasons which I won't get into here.

  5. We started time out right around 13 months. But you need to remove Sly from the situation completely. We have a time out chair in our house. Whenever Matthew needs a time out, he goes there. We warn him once when he is being naughty and then the next time, he goes to time out. We get down to eye level with him and say, "Matthew, you are in time out because __________." Then we turn our back to him and ignore him for one minute. After that, we ask him if he's ready to get out of time out. He usually says yes. We then remind him of the positive behaviors he will display when he gets out of the time out. For instance, "When you get out of time out, you will leave your food on your plate and eat nicely."

    It took a few times, but Matthew caught on quickly that time out is not a place he wants to be. Starting early was definitely key to keeping him in check. Now, some days he still spends lots of time in time out. And other days hardly any at all. But he's learning and he's 18 months old.

    We also pick our battles. Matthew loved opening the doors by the tv cabinet. Instead of fighting it, we let them become Matthew's cabinets. To us, it wasn't worth arguing over. Other issues, like throwing toys and food, are worth fighting about for us.

    I would highly recommend time out. I think it's very effective.


    We spank for dangerous behavior, when patience is not an option. I'm convinced it is not painful, especially on that padded bottom. Sometimes we swat him on the bottom in play just as hard or harder and he laughs! It's more just the surprise factor plus the panicked sound of mama's voice that upsets him. But it's effective. Anthony has definitely learned no going into the street, no pulling out the plug covers, etc.

    Time out did not work, as it just became a battle of wills about going to time out and the original reason for it was forgotten. If he throws his food, he loses it. Throw a toy, it's gone. Then we say, "Can you play nicely with the car?" then show him how to do it nice. If he throws it again no more chances. Then redirect to another activity. If there is a tantrum we give hugs until he calms down, which usually doesn't take long.

    Really I think at this age redirection is one of the best disciplining tools. They don't understand good and bad behavior, so "teachable moments" really don't exist. It's all positive and negative reinforcements. I think rewarding positive behavior is generally better. Little ones are so eager to please! As long as I say "Thank you" for each toy he puts away Anthony will pick them all up. But once I ignore him he'll immediately lose interest. Seems like that's pretty normal.

    Of course redirecting every five seconds gets frustrating, for you and baby. I really appreciated our baby-friendly yard when we were visiting Ryan's parents. In their backyard they have an in-ground pool, an unstable wall of concrete pieces, a slippery outdoor shower, a hot grill, stairs, about 20 of George's prize rosebushes, and a steep slope down into a canyon! You can guess how I spent the family barbecue! And it was not fun! If we strike a balance between making an environment where babies can safely explore, which is what they're supposed to be doing, and teaching them to work around what we absolutely cannot change, we'll get along ok. I really don't know what to tell you about the cat, though. :)