Can you overdo discipline?

Is it time to give badly behaved toddlers a break?

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Toddler discipline is a hot topic. You can barely switch on the TV without a parenting programme espousing the virtue of the naughty step, the quiet corner or time out. The next thing you know, they’ll be saying toddlers need an ASBO – Anti-Social Behaviour Order.

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Up and down the land, children are being raised with the belief that stairs aren’t just a means of getting you from one floor to another, but also a way of banishing bad behaviour.

Obviously, we all want perfectly behaved children, and today’s society places a strong emphasis on the importance of discipline. Even a government report entitled Crime Reduction Review, suggested targeting today’s badly behaved toddlers as a means of cutting crime.

It proposed training nursery staff to spot children at risk of turning to crime, on the basis of aggressive behaviour or a family history of criminality. It also suggested providing parenting classes for these toddlers’ parents. Citing various studies, the report went on to claim that children who are not ‘under control’ at 3 years old are four times more likely to be convicted of a violent offence once they reach maturity.

Is it any wonder that parents are growing increasingly paranoid about their children’s behaviour and are perhaps in danger of being overzealous with discipline?

Parenting expert Clive Dorman is founder of The Children’s Project and co-author of The Social Toddler (CP Publishing, £15.99), a book promoting positive behaviour in the under-4s. Clive says, ‘There’s a very strong domination and control aspect about today’s methods of discipline, and I do think people are in danger of using things like the naughty step inappropriately. Recently, I saw a neighbour insist her 3-year-old daughter sit on the naughty step just because she hadn’t said goodbye to someone properly!’

Although Clive agrees that a child who’s displaying aggressive, out-of-control behaviour at the age of 3 is a cause for concern, he believes it’s very dangerous to label a toddler a future menace to society. ‘If a child is labelled this way, he often faces lifelong exclusion and becomes increasingly angry. A label can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy,’ he warns.

Clive recalls a recent case he was presented with at The Children’s Project. ‘The child had been described as being totally out of control, when in fact, on closer inspection, it was the mum who had the problems. Away from the situation, the child was actually a really lovely little boy.’

When it comes to our children’s behaviour, Clive believes it’s essential to take the child’s individual personality into account. ‘I think there’s an assumption that all children are the same, and that if we are firm enough with them they will be compliant. Individual differences are not taken into account.

‘Adults are all different and we celebrate and accept this,’ continues Clive. ‘We would never compare a top athlete with an insurance underwriter or a poet, yet many of the qualities that made them what they are now, were in place at birth.’

Indeed, the inspiration behind The Children’s Project was Clive’s own daughter Hannah. ‘She was born a sensitive child, very different from our eldest two, and we soon realised we had to work with her personality type rather than against it. She was not the sort of child to be railroaded into behaving in a certain way, and if we had done that, I think we would have a very different girl from the one we have today.’

It’s a fact backed up by Dre Hollingsworth, 35, and her own children, Iola, nearly 4, and Zahra, 2. She says,  ‘Iola will obediently stay on the naughty step and the outcome is invariably a tear-stained apology. Zahra, however, has taken to telling me defiantly how much she likes the naughty step, and if I’m expecting her to say sorry, I can think again. For Zahra, getting down to her level and explaining clearly the effect her behaviour is having has far more effective results.’

Parenting, however, is like a pendulum, and what’s fashionable for one generation is quickly shunned by the next. Take smacking for example. Most of today’s parents probably received the odd tap on the backside from their parents, but the chances are they’ve never raised a finger to their own child. Not only is it socially unacceptable, in certain circumstances it’s illegal. Yet, Tony Blair fuelled the debate by revealing he smacked his three eldest children when they were small, but had abandoned the practice by the time youngest son Leo was born.

Whatever disciplinary approach you adopt, there’s one thing every expert agrees on, and that’s consistency. It’s essential to decide on the rules with your partner and then stick to them.

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And remember, as your child gets older their behaviour will improve. As Clive Dorman points out, ‘Toddlers are still trying to learn about themselves, their place in the world, and social and emotional relationships. In getting to grips with any skill we make mistakes, and there’s no difference when it comes to learning how to behave.’

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