TL;DR version: Toddler doesn't understand disciplining. Help needed.

At 22 months, our toddler is incredibly active and always has been. He's also mostly very well-behaved, especially when being babysat alone with grandma, or when dad or others are around -- even to the point of carrying his dishes to the sink and such.

But he is often misbehaving when he's only supervised by mom. I'm feeling certain that mom demonstrates more than reasonable patience, and that the relevant rules are enforced with >97% consistency, so I don't think that mom needs to change herself. I think the level of disciplining needs to go up, but how?

He is not misbehaving out of anger, merely for his own enjoyment. Although his naps are generally short, he's only slightly less prone to misbehave when he's well rested anyway. He's not spoiled and buried in toys but he has enough that he doesn't play with all of them. He very rarely plays by himself for more than 5 minutes, so it's very difficult to get anything done while he's awake (cleaning, cooking, reading, calling, mailing, working). I'm sure he gets more than enough attention, but he seems to be craving for permanent, undivided attention but that's just not possible. He does get plenty of positive attention, and plenty of praise for the many good things he does. The problem is that mom can't give him attention all of the time.

Misbehaving includes throwing things; pulling plants' leaves; climbing and jumping on furniture; ramming his ride-on car into walls and furniture; running onto the street; etc. He knows he is breaking a rule, and misbehaves anyway - repeatedly, if he can. This takes quite a toll on mom, and needs to change. After all, even the most patient of parents can only lovingly correct him so many times.

Corrections may escalate from a stern "no" and removing the toy, to removing him from the location, to sitting him down and explain in short and clear terms what's right and wrong. After enough times there's just no patience left (nor energy), especially when it's been going on all day, all week, all month.

We don't believe in physical punishment (spanking etc.). We do believe that our son clearly understands what we tell him, and when he's not alone with mom, he demonstrates that he clearly understands the rules that exist.

In answers to other questions, I've seen "time-out" and the "1-2-3 method" mentioned as effective, but I don't see my son reacting to that -- he is not the kind of kid you can sit down on a mat and say "stay!", especially not when only mom is around. When he's placed in his room, he just leaves the room (he can open all doors unless they're locked or gated). When he's placed in his cot, he cries loudly and doesn't stop.

I would (perhaps naively) expect an older child to understand and, to some degree, respect disciplining activities -- but our son, at this age, just doesn't seem to notice or care. It feels as if he's too young to grasp the concept of disciplining, but I think that's not accurate; we just haven't found the right method yet.

Mom is at her wits' end, and needs a workable solution. Help!

3 Answers 3


From you description you are not doing timeouts right. I did the Supernanny method (not sure if she is known in your part of the world). Basic rules:

  • Timeout lasts as many minutes as your child's age. So in your case it will be 1 and a half or 2 minutes.
  • When child misbehaves, you give one warning and next time there is a timeout.
  • For the timeout you put the child in the designated place (naughty chair or naughty step), get down to the child's level and explain to him why he is getting a timeout and then start the time.
  • If the child gets up, which he will, you silently and patiently(this is a key) put him back and start time again. It can take a while, first several times especially.
  • When the time is over, you to get down to the child's level and look him in the eyes repeat what was the timeout for and your child has to apologize. This is the trickiest part with the small child, I did not always go through with apologizing.
  • Then you tell him that you love him.

After that the incident is over. It is very important to follow through: once you gave a warning there is no way back. You have to be calm and don't get angry. But if warning worked just let it go.

There are several things you are achieving when you do timeout this way:

  • You take the child out of the situation
  • You take yourself out of the situation
  • You withdraw your attention for the time of timeout
  • You create an understanding of consequences

Also it looks to me that your child has a lot of energy: going to the playground or park will take most of the energy out and also will give him the opportunity to do things he can't do at home. Yes, it is difficult to get anything done with the toddler at home. That is why you have to help your wife with cleaning and cooking and don't assume that she can do everything just because she is at home all the time.

  • Thank you for the clarification! We haven't actually done time-outs yet precisely because we have a feeling it just won't work with him. Will research this more. Commented Jul 29, 2011 at 15:40
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    Also ... playground:check! Helping wife:check! Don't assume:check! We've got that covered. Commented Jul 29, 2011 at 15:43
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    My wife had a lot of friends that swear by the Supernanny method. It definitely didn't change our lives overnight (I had mixed feelings at first), but as we've used it consistently over time I think it's slowly beginning to work. I don't think we use it because it works wonderfully, I think we use it because everything else fails so horribly! Commented Jul 29, 2011 at 15:59
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    It works well for us - but you need consistency. When Grandpa swears - he gets 60 minutes timeout. (Not sure if he does it deliberately for some peace and quiet...:-)
    – Rory Alsop
    Commented Oct 8, 2011 at 16:30
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    Update, three years later: Timeouts don't work except in very specific circumstances (see my comment to this answer). It's pretty much as @BBM describes: mostly ineffective and tiring. Commented Sep 21, 2014 at 18:46

I agree that negative attention may be just as rewarding for your little one as positive attention. Therein lies the challenge.

I also agree that the Supernanny method works, but it must be enforced consistently and may demand great energy, effort, patience, and time from mom.

I have used a reverse time out method I developed with good results at least in a therapy setting. It works like this. I immediately get on the child's level moving quickly (even suddenly. Grasp both of child's hands in mine and say in a very stern voice, "No you do not [insert unacceptable behavior] and repeat statement several times looking directly in child's eyes. Then while still holding the child's hands, I dropped my gaze to the floor and look down. I continue holding the child's hands to the count of 10 or until they stop pulling away (if they do), while I keep my head down. Then I release the hands and go back to interacting just as if nothing had happened.

It seems this unusually behavior from an adult increases their focus on the problem while taking away the joy of the attention (positive or negative) because they do not have the parent's eye contact.

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    This is similar to what I do for my kids when they're at Torben's son's age where they don't quite communicate well enough to "get" time out, but are starting to assert their independence. Nothing works better than physically (but gently) stopping the behavior and denying any rewards from it, whether that be parental attention or a toy, treat, or activity they were breaking the rules to obtain. Commented Aug 5, 2011 at 21:08
  • @KarlBielefeldt "physically but gently stopping" - what would you do if the child physically (but not at all gently) refuses, e. g. bites or hits you, when you just try to stop it?
    – BBM
    Commented Oct 8, 2011 at 20:52
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    @BBM Positioning is key. If dealing with a biter or head banger, I step behind the child holding their arms firmly by their side with my arms fully extended to keep distance and avoid kicking or head banging. If older, I cross their arms at wrist behind their back at waist level. This gives me leverage and protection and keeps them safe too until they calm and recover. Commented Oct 9, 2011 at 2:15

Toddlers, especially those your son's age, crave attention. He has probably learned by now that he will get attention when he misbehaves--he knows that all he has to do is [insert destructive behavior here] to get some definite and direct attention from Mom. Never mind that she's saying "no" or "don't do that" or other words of discipline, it's attention.

Because your son is misbehaving so often and because his mom is being so consistent with the discipline, your son is no doubt getting plenty of attention. Of course the consistent disciplining is necessary, but that also means your son is going to hear a lot of "no" and "don't do that" and so on. It is important to remember to balance that discipline with words of praise for his good actions. If your son's misbehavior is linked in any way to a desire for attention, then getting attention through praise and encouragement will likely reduce the misbehavior. In fact, if he's carrying the dishes to the sink for grandma, I wouldn't be surprised if it's because she showers him with praise and extra attention when he does (if she's anything like our toddler's grandparents)! Just a guess...

Constructive group activities (like building something together with blocks) and creative activities (like coloring/drawing/painting together) are not only fun but provide many opportunities for parents to praise and encourage children. Of course it requires time and patience to do these activities together, but the positive attention can work wonders for a toddler.

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    +1 for the notion of "any attention is good attention". I didn't mention it, but we give him plenty of praise too. He's carrying his dishes at home. He doesn't want potty training, he's going straight for the real toilet - successfully. When he throws balls, they actually go precisely where he wants them to, usually into my open hands, a meter away. But at the same time, he appears to be too young for, or not interested in, the more constructive things you mention. The problem is that mom can't give him attention all of the time. (I added this into my question.) Commented Jul 29, 2011 at 14:02

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