No Bad Kids – Toddler Discipline Without Shame (9 Guidelines)

A toddler acting out is not shameful, nor is it behavior that needs punishing. It’s a cry for attention, a shout-out for sleep, or a call to action for firmer, more consistent limits. It is the push-pull of our toddler testing his burgeoning independence. He has the overwhelming impulse to step out of bounds, while also desperately needing to know he is securely reined in. There is no question that children need discipline. As infant expert Magda Gerber said, “Lack of discipline is not kindness, it is neglect.”

The key to healthy and effective discipline is our attitude. Toddlerhood is the perfect time to hone parenting skills that will provide the honest, direct, and compassionate leadership our children will depend on for years to come.

Here are some guidelines: 

1)      Begin with a predictable environment and realistic expectations.  A predictable, daily routine enables a baby to anticipate what is expected of him. That is the beginning of discipline. Home is the ideal place for infants and toddlers to spend the majority of their day. Of course, we must take them with us to do errands sometimes, but we cannot expect a toddler’s best behavior at dinner parties, long afternoons at the mall, or when his days are loaded with scheduled activities.  

2)      Don’t be afraid, or take challenging behavior personally. When toddlers act out in my classes, the parents often worry that their child might be a brat, a bully, an aggressive kid.  When parents project those fears, it can cause the child to internalize the negative personas, or at least pick up on the parent’s tension, which often exacerbates the behavior. Instead of labeling a child’s action, learn to nip the behavior in the bud by disallowing it nonchalantly. If your child throws a ball at your face, try not to get annoyed. He doesn’t do it because he dislikes you, and he’s not a bad child. He is asking you (toddler-style) for the limits that he needs and may not be getting.

3)      Respond in the moment, calmly, like a CEO.  Finding the right tone for setting limits can take a bit of practice. Lately, I’ve been encouraging parents that struggle with this to imagine they are a successful CEO and that their toddler is a respected underling. The CEO corrects the errors of others with confident, commanding efficiency. She doesn’t use an unsure, questioning tone, get angry or emotional. Our child needs to feel that we are not nervous about his behavior, or ambivalent about establishing rules. He finds comfort when we are effortlessly in charge.

Lectures, emotional reactions, scolding and punishments do not give our toddler the clarity he needs, and can create guilt and shame.  A simple, matter-of-fact “I won’t let you do that. If you throw that again I will need to take it away” while blocking the behavior with our hands is the best response. But react immediately. Once the moment has passed, it is too late. Wait for the next one!

4)      Speak in first person. Parents often get in the habit of calling themselves “mommy” or “daddy”. Toddlerhood is the time to change over into first person for the most honest, direct communication possible. Toddlers test boundaries to clarify the rules. When I say “Mommy doesn’t want Emma to hit the dog”, I’m not giving my child the direct (‘you’ and ‘me’) interaction she needs. 

5)      No time out. I always think of infant expert Magda Gerber asking in her grandmotherly Hungarian accent, “Time out of what? Time out of life?” Magda was a believer in straightforward, honest language between a parent and child. She didn’t believe in gimmicks like ‘time-out’ , especially to control a child’s behavior or punish him. If a child misbehaves in a public situation, the child is usually indicating he’s tired, losing control and needs to leave.  Carrying a child to the car to go home, even if he kicks and screams, is the respectful way to handle the issue. Sometimes a child has a tantrum at home and needs to be taken to his room to flail and cry in our presence until he regains self-control. These are not punishments, but caring responses.

6)      Consequences. A toddler learns discipline best when he experiences natural consequences for his behavior, rather than a disconnected punishment like time-out. If a child throws food, his or her mealtime is over. If a child refuses to get dressed, we don’t go to the park today. These parental responses appeal to a child’s sense of fairness. The child may still react negatively to the consequence, but he does not feel manipulated or shamed. 

7)      Don’t discipline a child for crying. Children need rules for behavior, but their emotional responses to the limits we set (or to anything else for that matter) should be allowed, even encouraged. Toddlerhood can be a time of intense, conflicting feelings.  Children may need to express anger, frustration, confusion, exhaustion and disappointment, especially if they don’t get what they want because we’ve set a limit. A child needs the freedom to safely express his feelings without our judgment.  He may need a pillow to punch — give him one.

8)      Unconditional love. Withdrawing our affection as a form of discipline teaches a child that our love and support turns on a dime, evaporating because of his momentary misbehavior. How can that foster a sense of security? Alfie Kohn’s New York Times article, “When A Parent’s ‘I Love You’ Means ‘Do As I Say’,” explores the damage this kind of “conditional parenting” (recommended by experts like talk show host Phil McGraw and Jo Frost of “Supernanny”) causes, as the child grows to resent, distrust and dislike his parents, feel guilt, shame, and a lack of self-worth.

9)    Spanking – NEVER. Most damaging of all to a relationship of trust are spankings.  And spanking is a predictor of violent behavior.  Time Magazine article, “The Long-Term Effects of Spanking” , by Alice Park,  reports findings from a recent study: “the strongest evidence yet that children’s short-term response to spanking may make them act out more in the long run.  Of the nearly 2,500 youngsters in the study, those who were spanked more frequently at age 3 were much more likely to be aggressive by age 5.”

Purposely inflicting pain on a child cannot be done with love. Sadly however, the child often learns to associate the two.

Loving our child does not mean keeping him happy all the time and avoiding power struggles. Often it is doing what feels hardest for us to do…saying “No” and meaning it.

Our children deserve our direct, honest responses so they can internalize ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, and develop the authentic self-discipline needed to respect and be respected by others. As Magda Gerber wrote in Dear Parent – Caring For Infants With Respect, “The goal is inner-discipline, self-confidence and joy in the act of cooperation.”

This is groundbreaking post that inspired my bestselling book No Bad Kids and my new master course:!



Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. I really wish there was some actual science here rather than opinion-based rules. For one example, the research on spanking listed here is very incomplete. One study is not the end-all and be-all but rather systematic literature reviews and meta-analyses are what more fully informs the debate. The “spanking – never” approach is really not a great one, when looking at the literature. Rather it should be “disriminiation between effective and counterproductive physical punishment with young children” as one research study puts it. Of course it is much easier to just say “spanking -never” but the pint is that “apparently detrimental outcomes have been found for every alternative disciplinary tactic”. See:

    1. Right, Jeff. That is why I don’t recommend disciplinary tactics.

      1. No disciplinary tactics is a disciplinary tactic. I think you are definitely recommending disciplinary tactics, even above you mention “natural consequences” as a way for children to “learn discipline”. I believe I understand how you want the parent to be able to be engaged with children (even when they are being disciplined) and/or discipline in a positive way only. However, postive parenting-only underperforms when it comes to outcomes.

    2. Pauline Hoyle says:

      I totally agree! An occasionally smack does not constitute bullying or abuse.
      What it does is reinforce a consequence for constant bad behaviour.
      We have so many children out of control these days because of lack of productive discipline.
      I was spanked, as were many others and it taught me to behave appropriately: the threat of a spanking was enough then to make me ‘tow the line’.
      The lady talks about boundaries and consequences. What if her methods are failing which, in a lot of cases, they are?
      Yes, try her tactics but, if they are not working, a quick, sharp smack can do the trick.
      Sometimes, they take a minority result and you will always get the ones who will shout up whereas, those who accepted their punishment, don’t bother. So, in my opinion, maybe the results are inaccurate.
      No discipline in schools allowed and look how these so called methods have failed:many children having no respect for their teachers because they have got away with bad behaviour for so long. It was never ‘nipped in the bud’ effectively.
      Look what our police force and NHS have to put up with: constant taunting and abuse by criminals, even violence and I’d like to bet these criminals were the start of this new regime and never spanked.
      What is our country coming to????

      1. Personally, I completely agree with the sentiment “spanking never” and at the same time I can see why you might feel it necessary. For example if a toddler runs out the house without permission, obviously the natural consequence of being run over by a car would be unacceptable. If you sit down with your child and gently alert them to the danger and ask them not to do it again, you may fear your words aren’t enough. In this case you might think “if I spank them they’ll remember – they won’t want that to happen again so they won’t run out again.” Personally I don’t think a toddler can understand that. I think spanking will damage your bond with your child without eliciting the result you desire. Instead I prefer to rewind to the moment things actually went wrong – invariably there’s something I could have done to prevent it. In this case, the best way to stop a toddler running out the house again is to make sure I keep the front door closed and if necessary locked in future. My point is, rather than spanking, or any other kind of consequence, the first port of call can always be to ask ourselves as parents if we could have prevented the behaviour happening in the first place, and if so we can actively avoid the same thing happening again

  2. What baffles me about parents who spank is that they generally stop when the child reaches a certain age. Why? Because the child is old enough or strong enough to understand the gross hypocrisy: I can hit you when you are little and powerless but not when you are bigger and stronger.

    1. Pauline Hoyle says:

      They don’t need to do itvwhen a child is older because the child learned at an early age.

  3. How about kids who hit? My son is almost 3 and we talk to him about it. Tell him his hands/feet are not for hurting. We try to be as calm as possible.

  4. Muzi Dlamini says:

    Great insights Janet, thank you.

  5. For consequences :
    What is an appropriate amount of time to instil them for a 16 month old! In your food example kiddo throws food, you take food away, but child hasnt eaten meal at all! How long until you cam sit them in front of the food again. Or they bite, hit or hurt you from frustration so you sit them down! How long before you can pick them up again after saying I will not allow you to hurt me?

    1. Heather, 16 month old is a baby, you sit with them, talk and explain gently and most importantly don’t take it personally and just carry on.
      Treat them with love, respect and leave your ego to the times when you were child free. One of the biggest enemies in building a beautiful relationship with our child and bringing confident but loving child, are our own egos.
      Love and only love can grow love

      1. I don’t think a toddler’s capable of equating throwing food with being naughty, and they certainly aren’t doing it to deliberately wind us up. In my little one’s case, I think it’s more an experiment to see what will happen (does it make a noise hitting the floor etc), mixed with a way to get rid of food she doesn’t want to eat. My current strategy is to ignore the fallen food (not wanting the outcome of the experiment to be “mama makes a funny face and gives me lots of attention”), and instead I remind her that if she doesn’t want something on her plate she can put it on my plate. It’s not perfect, but she’s just turned two and often does give food to me now rather than dropping it on the floor. I agree with you on natural consequences not always being right – you can’t take food from a child when they need to eat. At the moment I’m often struggling to get her dressed in the morning – not going out isn’t a natural consequence she’d understand at this age imo, and it’s also likely she’d prefer not to go out at that moment – it’s me who gets the consequence of a toddler with cabin fever later in the day, much like it’s us who’d get the consequence of a hungry toddler if we took their food away. I enjoyed and agree with much of the article, and maybe the natural consequences will resonate more when she’s older – I just think maybe she’s too young at the moment.

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