By Dr Benjamin Spock updated by Dr Robert Needlman
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It’s easy to fall into the habit of saying to a small child: ‘Do you want to sit down and have your lunch?’ ‘Shall we get dressed now?’ ‘Do you want to do wee-wee?’ Another common approach is, ‘It's time to go out now, OK?’

The trouble is that the natural response of the child, particularly between ages 1-3, is ‘No’. Then the poor parent has to persuade the child to give in to something that was necessary anyway.

These arguments use up thousands of words. It is better not to offer a choice.

When it’s time for lunch, lead or carry your child her to the table, still chatting about the thing that was on the child’s mind before. When you see signs that your child needs to go to the toilet, lead her there or bring the potty to her.

Handling transitions

Every time you take a child away from something he’s absorbed in, it helps to be tactful:

  • If your 15-month-old is busy fitting one hollow block inside another at dinnertime, you can carry him to the table still holding his blocks. Take them away when you hand over his spoon.
  • If your two-year-old is playing with a toy dog at bedtime, you can say, ‘Let’s put doggie to bed now’.
  • If your three-year-old is chugging a toy car along the floor when it’s time for the bath, you can suggest that the car make a long, long trip to the bathroom.

When you show interest in what your child is doing, it puts her in a cooperative mood.

As your child grows older, he’ll be less distractible and have more concentration. Then it works better to give him a little friendly warning.

If a four-year-old has spent half an hour building a garage of blocks, you can say, ‘Put the cars in soon now. I want to see them inside before you go to bed’. This works better than pouncing on her without warning when the most exciting part of the play is still to come, or giving her a cross warning.

All this takes patience, though, and naturally you won’t always have it. No parent ever does.

Read more about handling transitions.

Video Encouraging good behaviour

This video demonstration features tips on encouraging good behaviour in children, including strategies to avoid tantrums, whining and hitting. Children learn a lot from watching their parents' reactions and behaviour. Praise and encouragement are also important. The video highlights the importance of clear communication and connection with your child.

Don’t give the small child too many warnings

You sometimes see a child between the ages of 1-3 who becomes worried by too many warnings. The mother of a certain two-year-old boy always tries to control him with ideas: ‘Jackie, you mustn't touch the doctor’s lamp, because you will break it, and then the doctor won’t be able to see’. Jackie regards the lamp with a worried expression and mutters, ‘Doctor can’t see’.

A minute later he is trying to open the door to the street. His mother warns him, ‘Don’t go out the door. Jackie might get lost, and Mummy couldn’t find him’. Poor Jackie turns this new danger over in his mind and repeats, ‘Mummy can’t find him’.

It’s bad for Jackie to hear about so many bad endings. A two-year-old baby shouldn’t be worrying much about the consequences of his actions. This is the period when he is meant to learn by doing and having things happen. I’m not advising you never to warn your child in words, but only that you shouldn’t always lead him out beyond his depth with ideas.

Don’t give the small child too many explanations

I think of an overconscientious father who feels he should give his three-year-old daughter a reasonable explanation of everything. When it’s time to get ready to go outdoors, it never occurs to him to put the child’s coat on in a matter-of-fact way and get out.

He begins, ‘Shall we put your coat on now?’ ‘No’, says the child. ‘Oh, but we want to go out and get some nice fresh air’.

She is used to the fact that her father feels obliged to give a reason for everything. This encourages her to make him argue for every point. So she says, ‘Why?’ – but not because she really wants to know. ‘Fresh air makes you strong and healthy so that you won’t get sick.’ ‘Why?’ says she. And so it goes, back and forth, all day long.

This kind of meaningless argument and explanation will not make her a more cooperative child or give her respect for her father as a reasonable person. She would be happier and get more security from him if he had an air of self-confidence and steered her in a friendly, automatic way through the routines of the day.


Video Discouraging behaviour

This video shows you how to discourage bad or inappropriate behaviour in children. It covers strategies such as empathy, distraction, ignoring, using consequences and communicating clearly with your child about what you expect. You might need to experiment to work out which strategies are best for your child.


What to do

  • When your child is young, rely most heavily on physically removing her from dangerous or forbidden situations by distracting her to something interesting but harmless.
  • As your child grows a little older and learns what is dangerous or forbidden, remind him with a matter-of-fact ‘no’ and more distraction. If he wants an explanation or a reason, give it to him in simple terms.
  • But don’t assume that your child wants an explanation for every direction you give. She knows that she is inexperienced. She counts on you to keep her out of danger. It makes her feel safe to have you guiding her, provided you do it tactfully.