When You Feel Like Calling in the SWAT Team

The young mother of a defiant 3-year-old girl once approached me in Kansas City to thank me for my books and broadcast tapes. She told me that a few months earlier her little daughter had become increasingly defiant and had managed to "buffalo" her and her husband. They knew they were being manipulated, but they couldn't seem to regain control.

Then one day they happened to see a copy of my book The New Dare to Discipline on sale in a local bookstore. They bought the book and learned therein that it is appropriate to spank a child under certain well-defined circumstances. My recommendations made sense to these harassed parents, who promptly spanked their sassy daughter the next time she gave them reason to do so.

But the little girl was just bright enough to figure out where they had picked up that new idea. When the mother awoke the next morning, she found her copy of The New Dare to Discipline floating in the toilet! That darling little girl had done her best to send my writings to the sewer, where she thought they belonged. I wouldn't doubt that I am apparently resented by an entire generation of kids who would like to catch me in a blind alley on some cloudy night.

It is obvious that children are aware of the contest of wills between generations, and that is precisely why the parental response is so important. When a child behaves in ways that are disrespectful or harmful to himself or others, his hidden purpose is often to verify the stability of the boundaries.

This testing has much the same function as a policeman who turns doorknobs at places of business after dark. Though he tries to open the doors, he hopes they are locked and secure. Likewise, a child who assaults the loving authority of his parents is greatly reassured when their leadership holds firm and confident. He finds his greatest security in a structured environment where the rights of other people (and his own) are protected by definite boundaries.

Our objective, then, is to shape the will during the early years of childhood. But how is that to be accomplished? I have talked to hundreds of parents who recognize the validity of the principle but have no idea how it can be implemented in their homes.

To begin with, the wise parent must understand the physical and emotional characteristics of each stage in childhood and then fit the discipline to a boy's or girl's individual needs. Here are some specific suggestions and recommendations geared to different age groups. Please understand that this discussion is by no means exhaustive. I am merely suggesting the general nature of disciplinary methods at specific periods.

Birth to 7 months

No direct discipline is necessary for a child under 7 months of age, regardless of behavior or circumstances. Many parents do not agree, and they find themselves "swatting" a child of 6 months for wiggling while being diapered or for crying in the midnight hours. This is a serious mistake. A baby is incapable of comprehending his "offense" or associating it with the resulting punishment.

At this early age, he needs to be held, to be loved and, most important, to hear a soothing human voice. He should be fed when hungry and kept clean and dry. In essence, it is probable that the foundation for emotional and physical health is laid during this first six-month period, which should be characterized by security, affection and warmth.

On the other hand, it is possible to create a fussy, demanding baby by rushing to pick him up every time he utters a whimper or sigh. Infants are fully capable of learning to manipulate their parents through a process called reinforcement, whereby any behavior that produces a pleasant result will tend to recur.

Thus, a healthy baby can keep his mother hopping around his nursery 12 hours a day (or night) by simply forcing air past his sandpaper larynx. To avoid this consequence, it is important to strike a balance between giving your baby the attention he needs and establishing him as a tiny dictator. Don't be afraid to let him cry for a reasonable period of time (which is thought to be healthy for the lungs), although it is necessary to listen to the tone of his voice for the difference between random discontent and genuine distress. Most mothers learn to recognize this distinction in time.

8 to 14 months

Many children will begin to test the authority of their parents during the second seven-month period. The confrontations will be minor and infrequent before the first birthday, yet the beginnings of future struggles can be seen.

For example, my own daughter, Danae, challenged her mother for the first time when she was 9 months old. My wife, Shirley, was waxing the kitchen floor when Danae crawled to the edge of the linoleum. Shirley said, "No, Danae," gesturing to the child not to enter the kitchen. Since our daughter began talking very early, she clearly understood the meaning of the word "no."

Nevertheless, she crawled straight onto the sticky wax. Shirley picked her up and sat her down in the doorway while saying "No" more firmly. Not to be discouraged, Danae scrambled onto the newly mopped floor. My wife took her back, saying "No" even more strongly as she put her down. Seven times this process was repeated, until Danae finally yielded and crawled away in tears. As far as we can recall, that was the first direct collision of wills between my daughter and my wife. Many more were to follow.

How does a parent discipline a 1 year old? Very carefully and gently! A child at this age is extremely easy to distract and divert. Rather than jerking a china cup from his hands, show him a brightly colored alternative and then be prepared to catch the cup when it falls.

When unavoidable confrontations do occur, as with Danae on the waxy floor, win them by firm persistence but not by punishment. Again, don't be afraid of the child's tears, which can become a potent weapon to avoid nap time or bedtime or diaper time. Have the courage to lead the child without being harsh or mean or gruff.

Compared to the months that are to follow, the period around 1 year of age is usually a tranquil, smooth-functioning time in a child's life.

15 to 24 months

It has been said that all human beings can be classified into two broad categories: those who would vote "yes" to the various propositions of life, and those who would be inclined to vote "no."

I can tell you with confidence that each toddler around the world would definitely cast a negative vote! If there is one word that characterizes the period between 15 and 24 months of age, it is "No!" No, he doesn't want to eat his cereal. No, he doesn't want to play with his dump truck. No, he doesn't want to take his bath. And you can be sure that, no, he doesn't want to go to bed anytime at all. It is easy to see why this period of life has been called "the first adolescence" because of the negativism, conflict and defiance.

However, with all its struggles, there is no more thrilling time of life than this period of dynamic blossoming and unfolding. New words are being learned daily, and the cute verbal expressions of that age will be remembered for half a century.

It is a time of excitement over bedtime stories and hide-and-seek and furry puppy dogs. And most important, it is a precious time of loving and warmth that will scurry by all too quickly. There are millions of older parents today with grown children who would give all they possess to relive those bubbly days with their toddlers.

Let me make a few disciplinary recommendations that will, I hope, ease some of the tension of the toddler experience. I must hasten to say, however, that the negativism of this turbulent period is both normal and healthy, and nothing will make an 18-month-old child act like a 5 year old.

First, and for obvious reasons, it is extremely important for fathers to help discipline and participate in the parenting process when possible. Children need their father, and they respond to their masculine manner, of course, but wives need their husbands, too.

This is especially true of stay-at-home moms who have done combat duty through the long day and find themselves in a state of battle fatigue by nightfall. Husbands get tired, too, but if they can hold together long enough to help get the little tigers in bed, nothing could contribute more to the stability of their homes.

I am especially sympathetic with the mother who is raising a toddler and an infant at the same time. There is no more difficult assignment on the face of the earth. Husbands who recognize this fact can help their wives feel understood, loved and supported regarding the vital jobs they are doing.

2 to 3 years

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the "terrible twos" is the tendency of kids to spill things, destroy things, eat horrible things, fall off things, flush things and get into things. They also have a knack for doing embarrassing things, like sneezing on a nearby man at a lunch counter.

During these toddler years, any unexplained silence of more than 30 seconds can throw an adult into a sudden state of panic. What mother has not had the thrill of opening the bedroom door, only to find Tony Tornado covered with lipstick from the top of his pink head to the carpet on which he stands?

On the wall is his own artistic creation with a red handprint in the center, and throughout the room is the aroma of Estee Lauder's White Linen, with which he has anointed his baby brother. Wouldn't it be interesting to hold a national convention sometime, bringing together all the mothers who have experienced that exact trauma?

You must keep a sense of humor during the twos and threes in order to preserve your own sanity. But you must also proceed with the task of instilling obedience and respect for authority. Thus, most of the comments written in the preceding section also apply to the child between 22 and 36 months of age.

Although the "older" toddler is much different physically and emotionally than he was at 18 months, the tendency to test and challenge parental authority is still very much in evidence. In fact, when the young toddler consistently wins the early confrontations and conflicts, he becomes even more difficult to handle in the second and third years.

Then a lifelong disrespect for authority begins to settle into his young mind. Therefore, I cannot overemphasize the importance of instilling two distinct messages within your child before he is 48 months of age:

  1. "I love you more than you can possibly understand. You are precious to me, and I thank God every day that He lets me raise you!"
  2. "Because I love you, I must teach you to obey me. That is the only way I can take care of you and protect you from things that might hurt you. Let's read what the Bible tells us: 'Children, obey your parents, for this is what God wants you to do'" (Ephesians 6:1).

Healthy parenthood can be boiled down to those two essential ingredients: love and control, operating in a system of checks and balances. Any concentration on love to the exclusion of control usually breeds disrespect and contempt. Conversely, an authoritarian and oppressive home atmosphere is deeply resented by the child who feels unloved or even hated. To repeat, the objective for the toddler years is to strike a balance between mercy and justice, affection and authority, love and control.

Background Information

Questions and Answers


If you've been through a experience related to this topic, we invite you to share your story with others.
Share Your Story

Other Things to Consider

TransitionsHaving a Baby, Preparing for Adolescence

Life PressuresWorking Moms, Stay-At-Home Moms, Time for Family

RelationshipsParents and Adult Children, Blended Families