3 Things to Remember About Disciplining Your 2 Year Old

My current two year old—the cutest, squooshiest little buddy ever

My current two year old—the cutest, squooshiest little buddy ever

The other night, my husband and I went to a fundraising dinner for a local charity. I was super excited to get out of the house for a while and have a babysitter, so I showered (this is how you know I’m really excited) and put on some dressy slacks and a top that I’d never worn before, and we headed out. Once we sat down at the table with a few other couples, my husband so sweetly leaned over and whispered to me…that I was wearing my blouse inside out. I’m not even kidding. I have no idea how that even happens, and I certainly have no idea how I can be so oblivious that I get ready in front of a mirror and walk right out the door without knowing that I’m wearing my shirt inside out, but nevertheless it happened.

Anyway, after the blessing was said, I quietly slipped out to the restroom to fix the situation before more people noticed my wardrobe blunder. When I got into the restroom, I saw a younger woman from our church that I don’t know super well, but I really like her. She is always smiling and doesn’t have that defensive, I-know-EVERYTHING aura that lots of 20-something moms have—and I hope that sounds as non-judgmental as possible because I was the queen of those kind of moms in my twenties. You literally couldn’t tell me anything until I was dethroned by my boys. But moving on. She asked me, as we were standing at the sinks, what we do about discipline for our 2 year olds. And in typical fashion, I couldn’t think of a great answer. I’m one of those people that sounds like a TOTAL IDIOT if you spring a question on me, but after the fact I have lots of thoughts about what I wish I would have said.

So here’s what I wish I would have said to this mom when she said she was struggling to have balance with her two year old. I would say, after now having six 2 year olds, I have seen some consistencies. Even though they’re all so different, these three things have remained true with all of them:

  1. There is no such thing as balance with a toddler. They are all or nothing all the time. One minute they are thrilled with life, and so are you, because you’re so thankful that God has given you the cutest, best little version of yourself or your spouse. Praise the Lord, he/she embodies only your very best qualities and life is so good! And then in a split second, you have cut their sandwich when they wanted it big and now the house is falling down all around you. Things will never be good again—until naptime. The only balance that exists with toddlers is the balance between being awake and asleep. The balance you crave comes in the form of 1)nap time and 2) bed time.

  2. Read them books. At first glance, this seems irrelevant; but hear me out. Reading them books gives them something positive to hear, and it creates a moment for the two of you. It allows you a minute to slow down, which is essential in keeping your own mental balance; when you’re constantly rushing around and accomplishing tasks, you can quickly get too frazzled to discipline with love and effectiveness. Reading fills their little love tanks up, grows their brain, and establishes mutual love and quality time between the two of you. Even if your toddler is too busy to sit in your lap, just sit down near him or her and read while they’re playing. Some children need to keep moving while they listen, but they’re still listening and the experience is still valuable. And developing their listening skills is one of the most essential (not to mention practical!) lessons you can teach your child. Nothing is more frustrating than having to repeat yourself over and over; reading to your child gives him/her good practice at wanting to hear what you have to say! Those listening skills come in handy as they get older, and filling their love tanks is ESSENTIAL before we get to my last truth.

  3. Obey, obey, obey. Let me say it again, in case that wasn’t enough: OBEY. Insist on their obedience. I remember hearing a more seasoned mother teaching a group of young mothers a long time ago, when I was in the throws of having one of my first two year olds. She preached obedience and told us that we had to win every single dispute. It felt impossible at the time; how do you win an argument with a 2 year old? You don’t argue, for one thing. You discipline. When you tell them to do something, you insist they obey. If they don’t, you address it right away. Most of the time in my parenting life, this inevitably means we are somewhere super inconvenient like the grocery store or the ball field. But here’s the thing, it’s never going to be somewhere where it’s easy…because disciplining toddlers is hard no matter where you are. And most of the time when you’re at home and nobody is looking, they’re not overstimulated and disobeying you. So you have to move past the fear that people are judging you or your toddler, pick him or her up (probably kicking and screaming), remove as much of the audience as you can by finding a bathroom or other semi-private area, and do whatever discipline method you have found to be effective with your child. To me, the issue is not whether you believe in spanking or time outs or whatever else, the issue is you just have to do it and do it consistently. You have to do it every time. It feels so mean and so unyielding, and because we’re all kind adults who love our kids and want to be “balanced,” we don’t want to find ourselves constantly enforcing our own rules. But the reality is, if you do just that—consistently enforce the boundaries you have set for your family by insisting on obedience—from ages zero to five, the hard work of discipline is largely done.

No doubt about it, the toddler years can be some of the hardest. We tell ourselves when they’re so little and cute that disobedience can be addressed later, and that what they need right now is just to be loved. So what I had to do was reframe that in my mind. I’m a person of faith, and in the Bible God tell us that He disciplines those He loves (Heb 12:6). If I really believe that He is a perfect parent and that I need to model my parenting after His ways, then I have to believe that insisting on discipline for my toddler is one of the most important ways to show him love, even though it doesn’t feel like it in the moment.

It also doesn’t help that I find that I make excuses for my children’s disobedience. I explain it away by saying that they are overstimulated (like I mentioned above) or tired because I didn’t let them nap long enough. Let me tell [myself] two things about that…first, it’s good to examine the reasons a child might be melting down. There’s almost always an outside cause, and because they’re not in control of their environment, it’s often a cause that is not even their fault. So realizing the causes goes such a long way in trying to avoid that situation in the future. However, and this is the second point, I do not do my toddler any favors by allowing him to disobey when the circumstances are unfavorable. All of us grow up in a world where things happen outside our own control, and we can’t control anything but our own behavior. I find that the sooner my kids have learned that, the more adaptable they are to hard situations.

I hope this doesn’t sound preachy. I mainly write it to get off my chest what I wish I would have been able to say to this dear younger mother. But I also write it to remind myself, because I still have a 2 year old (for 2 more months, anyway), and it hasn’t gotten any easier! Toddlers push me to my limits, and sometimes I need to remember the truth about why it’s worth it to put in the hard work early and trust that we will reap a harvest of rest and good behavior later.