Instead of asking, “When should I start disciplining my child?” researchers from Yale University recently posed a different question that might change the way you think about the issue. They asked, “When does a child begin to know the difference between right and wrong acts?”
The answer: five months of age.
For parents wondering when they should start teaching their children the difference between right and wrong, this means the best age is probably much earlier than most people think, long before the “terrible twos” kick in.
The key is consistency, even with young babies. For example, if your baby bites you every time you take something away and you do not directly address the behavior, you are teaching your baby that it’s OK to bite when he or she is angry.
Instead, you should let your baby know in a calm but stern tone of voice that you do not like biting. If you’re holding your baby and it’s possible, you can set him or her down on the floor and remove the direct contact. You can offer alternative behaviors, even at a very young age.
The idea is to demonstrate to your baby that the behavior in question (e.g., biting) results in negative consequences (e.g., a stern voice and being set down) and that there are other ways to handle it (e.g., alternative behaviors).
The issue of setting limits is closely related to discipline. Babies who have predictable and consistent schedules quickly learn that certain things are expected of them at certain times. These babies tend to be calmer and less stressed or anxious. On the other hand, babies who are allowed to choose their own bedtimes, meal times, and other routine activities quickly learn that their desires are the most important factor. Instead, let your baby take the lead in decisions that are only experienced by your baby, such as what toys to play with, how much food to eat, and, later on, what clothes to wear.
The same applies for sleep and eating. Just because your baby is seemingly alert doesn’t mean he or she isn’t tired — once a baby has started to act cranky or fussy, the optimal time for bedtime has already passed. Set a predictable bedtime and create a soothing routine. With food, it’s important to offer a wide selection of healthy foods and let your baby signal when he or she is full, but you should maintain control over what is offered. Infants should not have unrestricted access to foods.
Discipline and limits become especially important when your infant can crawl and walk. As the parent, you are responsible for providing a safe environment to explore and play, but it’s also important to establish limits on what is and isn’t acceptable. Poking at the litter box? Banging pots and pans? These are not typically appropriate play activities, so it’s not a good idea to let your child get in the habit of engaging in them. Instead, create a safe play area full of toys your baby can select on his or her own.
Ideally, discipline means focusing less on saying things like, “Don’t do that!” and more on providing reasonable limits and expectations, then ensuring that your baby lives within those boundaries. Even very young babies can be taught that biting and pulling hair are forbidden behaviors. How you treat your baby will set the foundation for later parenting.
Reviewed by Dr. Kristie Rivers, September 2020
- Children tend to notice the difference between right and wrong as early as five months of age.
- Even infants can have boundaries set when it comes to discipline.
- Discipline issues that could arise include sleep times, eating, and what toys to play with.