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I have a two year old who is occasionally intentionally disobedient. She's quite well developed for her age and understands instructions given. But at the dinner table she is often quite disobedient, particularly with throwing food around.

Usually what will happen is that she will grow bored with her dinner and pick up a piece of vegetable and throw it across the table. We will tell her not to do that and in an act of defiance she'll pick another piece up, look straight at us, smile, and then throw the new piece of food, as if to say "what are you going to do about it"?

We have tried time-out discipline and also threaten to not give her dessert (which is a threat we have followed up with on a number of occasions).

What else can we try and why is she doing this?

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TL;DR: Children want boundaries. Help them self-regulate their behavior by making it a fun game involving points or a scoring system.

Why is she doing this?

Children need boundaries to feel secure.

The behavior you describe is your child requesting that you set her boundaries. At various points during their development, children will request boundaries in order to:

  1. know they exist
  2. discover exactly where they are and
  3. find out what will happen if they cross them.

Boundaries are like a psychological safety net for children. They want boundaries and need boundaries to feel secure and grow properly.

As a parent, it is your job to establish these boundaries and enforce them.

What else can we try?

I can tell you two very effective techniques I began when my children were slightly older than yours. Both involve turning their behavior self-management into a type of game.

Behavior Meter

The first thing I did was the behavior meter. Basically, this was my thumb pointing an angle (up, down or in between). When my thumb pointed straight up, it meant their behavior was perfect. When it pointed straight down it meant their behavior was unacceptable and immediate consequences and corrective measures would always follow. In between was their signal to self-regulate.

When I first started it, the children could understand by my facial expressions and tone what the calibration was. Whenever their behavior would begin to slip, I would pull out my thumb and point it at whatever angle was corresponding to their behavior. Usually, this would be some angle just slightly off of vertical because I would do it quickly to give their self-management skills time to kick in before they got out of hand.

Their goal was to instinctively prevent the thumb from going down and to get it back up to straight up vertical as quickly as possible. This helped give them real time feedback without waiting until the behavior got so bad a punishment was necessary. They could self-regulate more effectively. It worked great.

Smart Kid Points

The second thing I did was to start smart kid points. Every time they did something good (or smart) I gave them smart kid points. Because let's face it, everyone enjoys earning points. It's fun! For some reason humans seem universally programmed to want to earn points and no amount of points is ever enough. So I used this fact to my/our advantage.

Then when they asked if they could have something for Christmas I would check how many points they had then it would become a reward based system. I actually wrote down the points on a spreadsheet so I could show them how many they had whenever they asked.

  • A two-year-old is not able to delay gratification long enough to be rewarded with points to cash in sometime in the future. Rewards need to be fairly immediate at that age. – anongoodnurse Oct 23 '16 at 19:35
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    @anongoodnurse: At two years of age, the points themselves were sufficient to promote and achieve the desired behavior. As long as the adult sells it as something positive, the child should follow along. As they get older, they will begin to question What good are these points I'm earning? This happens around the time they begin to understand how money works. And that money gets them things they want in the store. And they have no money aside from what their parents have. Around this time they develop the delay-of-gratification skills you reference. That's when they can use their points. – Mowzer Oct 24 '16 at 2:15
  • Do you have and references for that? My reading suggests delaying gratification starts at the age of four. Yes, they may initially get excited about "points", but when they get nothing immediate from them, they no longer care. Reading some of the questions of discipline for two-year-olds will support that time and again. – anongoodnurse Oct 24 '16 at 4:39
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    @anongoodnurse: No. My only reference is my personal life experience. Sorry, no books. It doesn't matter what the rules are. What's important is that the parent sets the rules and enforces them consistently in a way that achieves the desired behavior. Also, different children will respond differently. The rules need to be effective for the specific child in question in order to be effective. It just happens that all my children were similar enough that the same set of rules / games worked for all three of them. But that is not necessarily always going to be the case in every situation. – Mowzer Oct 24 '16 at 5:42
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    I think you might be able to argue that the points themselves may not be enough, as anongoodnurse suggests, but your consistent use of them and their apparent effect on you (you mentioned body language) would make them a powerful tool for expressing your internal feelings towards their behavior. So long as they have a desire to please you, that makes them a useful symbol indeed. (disclaimer: I'm reading this question so that I'll be more ready for when my first kid reaches this age!) – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Nov 23 '16 at 18:53
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What's come up for me again and again is that, to change behavior, you have to see what the kid is doing, not what they're not doing. That's kind of a glib way to put it, since the problem you see is her "defying" you, but at 2, that's not really a thing they do. What I'm getting at, though, is, to change a behavior, you have to offer an alternate behavior. At 2, she may well only be able to know she's in trouble, not why, much less how to come up with something better to do. Same with withholding dessert. That has the double-whammy of being a punishment but it not being clear what (to her mind) and being removed in time from the event. Additionally, I don't love the no-dessert punishment because you also want her to be able to eat dinner without expecting that she'll have dessert every day unless she's in trouble.

I have two suggestions. First, what we did when our kids went through this is to put a napkin on the table and say that all food they didn't want should go on the napkin. If they dropped food, we'd pick it up and say, "It goes on the napkin," and put it there ourselves. If they picked up food and seemed to hesitate, we'd jump in and point to the napkin saying, "Remember, put your food on the napkin!" Eventually, it all went on the napkin and never on the floor. It will happen!

Second, and this is more for you, remember that, especially at her age, all lessons are a long game. She's not going to change in a day, much less a meal--in all likelihood, she won't change for multiple weeks. She really isn't cognitively capable of understanding that what you're telling her is wrong is going to be wrong every time. Think about what you want her to do and tell (and show) her how to do that, then be as consistent as you can. If you do that, she can build a habit, whereas if you focus on punishments, she will eventually learn what it is she's doing that is wrong, but she'll still struggle for a long time with the forethought and willpower to actually not do the wrong thing.

Oh, and one of my biggest problems with punishments is, depending on the kid, sometimes it's not long at all before they figure out that they can choose to do what they want and take the punishment. Some don't, but there are plenty of kids who, as they get older will just say, "I don't need dessert," or "I'll just play my game another time," because a punishment is basically giving them two choices, except you get mad if they take one choice over the other. I try to give my kids choices as much as I can, except I never give them a choice where one option isn't actually okay. That just pisses them off that you're being unfair, taking the focus off the behavior you want to correct and putting it on your behavior.

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    +1. I really liked this answer. Especially the napkin example. And replacing the focus on the negative behavior with an affirmative behavior goal. That is generally a very effective approach with most things in life (and not just children) but particularly with managing children's behavior. I have one request: Could you please clarify the meaning of your last two sentences? I think there is wisdom there but the double-negative in the second to last sentence is confusing and I lost track of your meaning. And could you also please add an example for additional clarity please and thank you? – Mowzer Oct 27 '16 at 12:37
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    +1 Eating the food or putting it on the napkin, instead of eating the food or throwing it/give up dessert. Good psychology there. – Peter - Unban Robert Harvey Oct 27 '16 at 13:16
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    @Mowzer, sure, sorry it wasn't clear. Any choice of options should be in good faith, so that, if you say, don't throw your food on the ground or you won't get dessert, and they pick the no dessert option, they'll find out that wasn't a good faith offer. They won't get dessert and you'll be mad, which wasn't a part of the original deal, and they'll feel tricked. Then they'll be thinking about how they're mad at you instead of what they should've done differently. – kmc Oct 27 '16 at 19:36
  • I think the napkin was particularly effective, in retrospect, because it was an affirmative alternative with actual clear, physical boundaries. That part was an accident. – kmc Oct 27 '16 at 19:37

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