Figuring out which rules to make and enforce with a toddler

You survived the infant stage and now it’s time for the real fun to begin. Crawling, walking, talking, throwing, biting – you name it, they're doing it (or at least trying to). Living with a toddler in the early months of their third year can sometimes feel like non-stop action. They throw their peas, you pick them up. They bite their sister, you tell them “No.” And while there are certainly lots of bright spots in the day when parenting a toddler, there are also plenty of times when they really tests your patience. 

Parents of toddlers can help make life a whole lot easier for themselves by determining which rules to set ahead of time, and by establishing a plan for enforcing them. But before you decide on the house rules, it’s important to know what Baby is able to understand and what kind of support they'll need as they learn to stick to those rules. 

What you need to know before establishing rules

  • Short attention span: Children at this age still have a fairly short attention span, so focusing on a few rules with consistent consequences works best. It’s also a good idea to keep the words you use simple and easy to understand when teaching the rule.
  • Identify ahead of time: As early as possible, start letting them know which of their actions aren’t okay. If you can lay some groundwork before you introduce the rules, they will be able to grasp the concept quicker.
  • Teach and re-teach: That short attention span mentioned above will force you to remind and re-teach often. When you teach your toddler a new rule or direction, there is a good chance they will forget the other two rules you taught them the day before. It’s important to go over the rules often and ask them to explain to you in their own words exactly what you’re asking from them.
  • Determine the biggies: There is so much for Baby to learn—but remember, they can only retain so much information. Pick the most important rules you want them to understand—enforce those, and let the small stuff go until they're ready to learn more.
  • Stay positive: Let’s face it, they isn’t going to listen to you every time you ask them to do something. And if you’re going to survive the toddler years, staying positive and understanding that a lot of their “negative” behavior is normal (and not necessarily directed at you), will help you encourage them to make better choices.
  • Let them know when they do something well: Toddlers who only hear “no” and “don’t” may stop responding to your direction. Make sure and point out what they are doing well as often as possible. 

Figuring out which rules to establish for your two-year-old

Two-year-olds operate on an association of action and consequences. “I hit my sister, I get put in time-out.” They lack the ability to really understand the meaning behind “why” we don’t do certain things. That’s why it’s important to keep the rules age-specific, simple, fair, and positively stated. Using direct language and an even tone of voice will help Baby know you mean business.

When determining which rules to start with, make a list of your top concerns and your child’s biggest behavior issues, then translate each one into a clear, simple rule. When your child breaks one of those rules, make sure the consequence is immediate and related to the negative behavior (if he keeps throwing his blocks, he can’t play with them for the rest of the day).

Many parents start with the non-negotiable rules around health and safety of self and others. Rules like these are designed to keep your child safe as well as other kids, pets, and adults. For example: always staying buckled into the car seat no matter how short the ride, always holding an adult’s hand when in a parking lot, no biting or hitting, and only using gentle hands with the family pet.

Once you and your toddler have some practice with a few basic safety rules, you can add one or two more house rules – maybe rules that revolve around looking after things (toys, books, etc) and rules about showing respect and care for others. For some families, this includes teaching and enforcing good manners, using a quiet voice in the house, asking for something instead of grabbing it out of another person’s hands, cleaning up toys, and no spitting, to name a few.

About the author:
Sara Lindberg is a freelance writer focusing on parenting, health, and wellness. She is passionate about all things fitness and health and loves spending time with her husband, daughter, and son. 

  • “Disciplining Your Child.” Healthy Children. American Academy of Pediatrics, November 21 2015. Retrieved July 13 2017.
  • “Healthy Discipline for Children.” AskDrSears. Retrieved July 13 2017.
  • “Setting Limits and Time-Outs.” AskDrSears. Retrieved July 13 2017. 
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