Parenting the Very Young Child

fullsizerender-1Many parents are confused about when they can expect their toddler or preschooler to reach important behavioral landmarks.

Following verbal directions…

Even though a two year old might sometimes do what you ask don’t expect such cooperation all the time! Two year olds are just as likely to do the opposite of what you ask. This is a normal stage of development. To help your toddler keep this advice in mind:

  • Tell your child what you do want instead of what you don’t want. For example you could say, “Stop at the curb” instead of “Don’t run into the street.” It is difficult for children to understand directions given in the negative form until after about 3 years old.
  • Show your child what you want. Practice walking to the curb and then stopping. Say “Stop at the curb” in a playful way. Hop or skip to the curb with your child and do the same thing. Let your child show you how well she or he can stop at the curb and then show the child how pleased you are that she or he has stopped. Don’t trust the child to stop for a long time, and certainly not until after age 3. Age 3 is a bit of a developmental milestone for more reliable ability to follow verbal directions.
  • Use safe and reliable consequences. Show your child how a toy is used correctly. If the child uses it unsafely or destructively remove the toy until the child is older and able to use it safely. If the child throws sand, first show her how to play with sand saying, “We dig in the sand. We build in the sand.” If the child throws sand remove the child from the sandbox. Repeat the directions. If the child throws sand again remove the child and go to an activity well away from the sandbox or even go home. The child will learn faster if you keep your temper, tell him or her what you want, and take a logical action than if you get angry.
  • Don’t leave the child to play out of sight with something that could create a problem such as permanent markers.

Using language…

First words often appear between 12 and 18 months. First phrases often follow within a year. Children who do not use words for asking for things and expressing feelings have little choice but to act out their feelings. Children who can use language to express feelings and solve problems are less likely to whine, bite, grab and hit.

  • Talk, talk, talk to and with your child. Describe what you are doing as you go through your day. Teach your child names for things and actions. Teach them the names for parts of their bodies as you bathe them. Teach them names for their feelings: “Kelly feels sad that her blocks fell over.” Ask your child questions, in a patient and interested way.
  • Read to your child. Children learn by repetition, so hearing then same things over and over is good for them. Read at least 20 minutes a day. Never let a child tear paper. They cannot tell the difference between junk mail and a first edition.
  • Teach your child to say thank you and please by saying it to him or her when you want something from them or they give something to you.

Playing with others…

Children play around others, rather than with others, until 2 1/2 to 3 years old.

  • Teach children to take turns and trade objects, as precursors to sharing. Have enough trucks and shovels to go around. Teach scripts such as “I want a turn” or “Shovel, please.” Toddlers cannot grasp the abstract concept of sharing. Telling them to share means nothing to them at this age.
  • Show them how to take turns and trade and then praise them for doing so. Sharing will begin to develop between 3 1/2 to 4.
  • Some things are too personal to share. These objects should be put away when others visit. Children who are permitted to hold back a special doll or bear learn to share more easily than those required to share everything.


Just as you are trying to teach patience to your child, take a deep breath and be patient with yourself as you learn to be a parent.

This page is abridged from a brochure by Marté Matthews, M.A. and her mother Melody Matthews Lowman, M.A.


  • The First Twelve Months of Life, The Second Twelve Months of Life, and Your Two to Six Year Old – Frank and Teresa Caplan
  • How to Behave So Your Preschooler Will Too – Sal Severe
  • Good Behavior – Garber, Garber and Spizman

Loving Discipline for the Very Young Child

Discipline is not a euphemism for punishment but rather the control that comes from outside (parents) that allows the child to develop optimal self-control.

Inborn Temperament

Know your child’s temperament:

  • “Easy” -Easily adapts, accepts routines, seems relaxed
  • “Slow to warm” -Holds back to “size up” a situation then participates
  • “Difficult”-Has difficulty establishing routines, relaxing, making transitions
  • “Mixed”-Most children have some combination of temperament, with an emphasis on one or another

Babies and Crying

Check for the reason for crying in the following order:

  1. Safe-Is the child’s leg caught between bars of the crib? Is he feverish?
  2. Clean and Fed-Does she need to be changed or nursed?
  3. Add stimulation-Does she need to be played with and talked to?
  4. Need reduced stimulation-Does he or she need to be swaddled and comforted briefly, then allowed to cry off tension?

Age-appropriate discipline prior to 36 months

  • Prevent-by keeping dangerous and delicate objects out of range
  • Distract-by engaging her attention in a positive activity
  • Redirect-by moving your child or substituting an appropriate object
  • Role model-by showing your child the desired behavior
  • Modify the schedule-evaluate your schedule to see if you are rushing or pressuring yourself or your child
  • Modify the environment-ask yourself if the environment is excessively loud, bright, or in some other way, overwhelming for a little one
  • Modify the stimulation-see above
  • Modify the materials-provide materials that the child is ready to use. If the child uses markers on the walls or table instead of paper then she is not ready to use markers unsupervised
  • Modify adult behavior-Take care of yourself. Get more sleep if possible. Don’t take the child on one more errand when she is beginning to get fussy. Limit phone call time when you are with your child.
  • Teach words for feelings
  • Practice desired behaviors
  • Positively reinforce desired behaviors
  • Tell the child what is wanted rather than what is not wanted
  • Make every misbehavior an opportunity for teaching
  • Use your own common sense

Social Skills Training for the Young Child

Many children learn social skills simply from observing others at home, the park, or preschool. Other children can benefit from having parents give them direct social skills instructions. Giving the child instructions should not be approached at punishment, but rather letting them in on the unspoken rules of behavior that they don’t know yet. Be sure your child knows the basics of the following skills before entering kindergarten:

  • Initiating play with another child or group of children
  • Knows how to take turns and trade materials-those skills precede the ability to share
  • Taking turns with materials, play ideas and roles within play
  • Knows how to greet adults and children
  • Knows how to approach an appropriate adult, such as a preschool teacher for comfort, such as a hurt finger on a playground
  • Knows how to join another child, or group of children. I use the device of “STOP, LOOK, and LISTEN” to what the child or children are doing, so the child joining them truly joins the activity rather than interrupting it.
  • Can tolerate transitions and ending play to go on to the next activity
  • Make sure your child can name the main emotions: happy, sad, angry, disappointed, frustrated Make sure your child can recognize the main emotions in others
  • Make sure your child knows how to use basic language for problem-solving I teach children to “Say how you feel, say what you want.” “Ask the other person how they feel and what they want.” “Ask the question, How can we make it work for both of us?”
  • Make sure that your child’s speech is clear and understandable to persons outside the family.
  • Give your child practice winning and losing at games. Teach good sportsmanship.
  • Read to your child for 15-20 minutes every day. This helps develop reading interest and skills as well as attention span. Allow the child to interrupt with questions and comments about the material being read.
  • Practice table manners at all meals
  • Practice courteous conversation within the family

“Use Your Words” Story

I wrote the following story for parents to read to their young children to help them remember to use words instead of physical aggression.

At the Willow Street school some of the children thought, “If someone hits me, I get to hit them back.” The hitting got so bad that children even said, “You hit me, so I have to hit you back.” What a lot of hitting that made! No problems ever got solved because everybody was too busy hitting and hitting back to find out what made anybody hit in the first place. The children and parents and teachers were so unhappy.

Then one day Mr. Gray asked John, “Why?”

“He hit me first,” said John.

“No, I meant, why did he hit you in the first place?”

” I don’t know,” said John, “Why did you hit me, Jack?”

“You put your cars where I was going to put mine,” replied Jack.

“I didn’t know that,” said John, “I only know I don’t like to be hit.”

“You could use your words to tell Jack how you feel and what you want,” explained Mr. Gray.

“How do I do that?” asked John. Mr. Gray explained to John and Jack that they could tell each other, how they feel and what they want. Jack was surprised at first: “You mean that I could just tell him that I wanted to put my cars on the track? And I feel mad when he put his there first?”

“Yes,” said Mr. Gray, “You just tell him how you feel and what you want, and ask how can we make it work for both of you.Try it, and see if it starts to solve the problem.”

After that, things in the neighborhood began to be different! Instead of getting mad and hitting, children began saying how they felt, and what they wanted, and what would solve the problem. If someone forgot and hit, instead of hitting back, children said, “I don’t like to be hit!” The person who felt hurt or angry first said, “You got in my way,” or “You stepped on my foot,” or whatever it was that made them feel hurt or angry. Then sometimes a child would explain that what happened was an accident, or they would figure out how to take turns. Soon everybody decided that it was better to solve problems than to hit. No one got hurt when problems got solved by talking. If children were confused about how to use words the parents and teachers were happy to help.

The parents and teachers were so proud of the children, and the children were proud of themselves.


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