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3 Rs of Toddler Discipline: Repetition, Reaction, Reassurance

When people ask how to discipline their toddler, they are often looking for a silver bullet that will get their toddler to behave or at least stop doing things that are destructive or dangerous. Even I have looked for that magic solution, when all else fails. But it doesn't exist. Discipline is a path, not a quick fix.

A lot of people think immediately about punishment when they think about discipline (especially those who are saying "but you HAVE to discipline your child or they'll turn into a little MONSTER"). But discipline is about teaching, not punishment. Just as you wouldn't punish your toddler for not being able to read as soon as you explain the concept of the ABCs, your toddler also isn't going to understand right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate, safe and unsafe, the first, the second, the third or even the ninety-ninth time that you explain it.

I think of toddler discipline as a process -- kind of like "wash, rinse, repeat", except that you're never really done.

What are the 3 Rs of Toddler Discipline?

Teaching in school is all about the 3 Rs of reading, writing and arithmetic. Toddler discipline also has three Rs -- repetition, reaction, and reassurance.


As I mentioned earlier, things aren't going to sink in the first time that you say them. As a parent or caregiver to a toddler, you will have to redirect your toddler over and over again. As you see them trying to climb onto the counter again, as they pull the cat's tail again, as they smear mashed potatoes on your laptop again, just keep reminding them that it isn't okay.

I like to use a three step approach of:

  • explaining what they shouldn't be doing (not just a simple "no", but actually describing what they shouldn't be doing to ensure that it is clear what you are talking about)

  • explaining why they shouldn't be doing it (in plain, simple language)

  • suggesting an alternative

As your toddler gets a bit more mature, you can also try asking your toddler what a good alternative would be. Wherever possible, be physically present as you are doing it (i.e. not yelling from the next room), get down to their level, and touch them as you are talking to them.

It is important to be consistent too in terms of the repetition. If it is funny one day for the toddler to pull the cat's tail, but off limits the next day, that will be confusing. Decide what is reasonably allowed and not allowed and try to be as consistent as possible in delivering your message.


In the context of toddler discipline, reaction can have several meanings.

First, I think it means being on the ball and watching your toddler carefully enough that you can react and catch them before they get injured or destroy property. You can be proactive to a certain extent by ensuring your house is child-friendly, but generally having a watchful eye and being prepared to step in is an important, but exhausting part of toddlerhood. That doesn't mean you have to hover at all times, but you do have to be aware.  Naomi from Standard Spicy Whatnot wrote a nice post about the difficulty finding the balance between letting her daredevil toddler have the freedom to explore and keeping him safe.

Second, reaction means controlling your own reaction. Toddlers are notorious for trying to get a rise out of you. They want your attention, both good and bad. They may hit you, throw food on the floor, spread ketchup on the walls, or run away from you just to get a reaction out of you. We had problems with this during diaper changes for a while. Our son would kick us constantly, we would get upset, and he would just do it more and more. After a while, we realized that he was reveling in the reaction. So we stopped reacting. We simply said "no kicking" in a calm voice and held his legs. Sometimes it took two of us to change his diaper, but we didn't give him the reaction he was looking for. Eventually, he got bored of it and stopped. Staying calm and being patient is key.  If we are yelling and screaming, then we teach our toddlers that that is a good way to communicate.


Toddlers need their parents to reassure them that everything is going to be okay. They are learning and developing fast and that can be overwhelming. Just as a child who is learning a new skill (like learning to ride a bike) needs lots of reassurance and encouragement, your toddler does too. Give them plenty of hugs, and time to connect, even and especially when it seems like they are really needy. Help build up their confidence by letting them accomplish things on their own and show you that they've done it. Part of reassurance is also ensuring that your toddler knows what to expect and what is going to happen next. Helping your toddler gently through transitions, instead of suddenly yanking them out of a situation will make things much easier for both of you.

Those are my 3 Rs of toddler discipline. Nothing magical about them and no guarantees that anything will be better tomorrow. But I do think that they are important building blocks for a developing toddler and will help them to learn appropriate boundaries within a loving environment.

Toddler Discipline Resources

Maybe you're looking for some more ideas? I don't parent "by the book" (any book), but I do sometimes find gentle parenting books and gentle parenting blogs to be useful places to get ideas for alternatives, especially when you're frustrated and feel like nothing is working.

  • My Discipline Spectrum applies to all ages, not specifically to toddlers. I think it is a good idea to figure out what your spectrum or compass is going to be when your kids are young, so that you will have a mindset with which to approach discipline.

  • I love this list of 101 things to do instead of yelling or spanking by Dionna (@codenamemama). This is less about controlling your child and more about controlling yourself, but is a very important resource indeed.

  • Sylvia from MaMammalia wrote a wonderful series of posts on toddler discipline. Back in May, she wrote a post called 8 Gentle Strategies to Foster Toddler Compliance. Her approach centers around creating a partnership between the parent and the child where both of their needs are taken into consideration. Makes sense, doesn't it? We're all more likely to listen and be willing to help others if we feel like we are being listened to and respected. But Sylvia knew something was missing when she wrote that post and when it came time to write something for this Carnival of Toddlers, she found the missing piece. Sometimes as parents, we do have to put our foot down and Sylvia gives us some ideas for handling a defiant and insistent "NO" from your toddler in 10 Loving Ways to Handle Toddler Defiance.

  • One of my favourite books for toddler discipline (and child discipline in general) is Playful Parenting.

  • If you are struggling to figure out what your discipline style should be, The Discipline Book (by Dr. Sears) may be the book for you. It talks about numerous different techniques and gives parents a true toolbox to choose from. As I mentioned in my review of the book, I don’t agree with everything in it, but I think it provides a balanced view of a lot of different approaches.

  • The No Cry Discipline Solution (by Elizabeth Pantley)was recommended by Mel Gallant (@melgallant).

  • Shanhila recommended Alfie Kohn's article Five Reasons to Stop Saying "Good Job!". If you like that article, you can also check out his book Unconditional Parenting, which I found interesting, even if it was a bit condescending in tone and didn't offer a lot of practical solutions. Or, if you want an amusing take on the "Good Job!" issue, check out Sharon's (@sharondv) article 99 Ways to Say Great Job and 96 Phrases You Can Use During Sex.

There are also some specific discipline issues that come up during the toddler years that parents find challenging:

What other toddler discipline resources do you love? What are your thoughts on the 3Rs?

Toddler Carnival Sponsor

Image credit: 3 Rs in order of appearance from left to right - christopher.woo, takomabibelot, lizjones112. Post contains affiliate links.
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Reader Comments (19)

Thanks for including me, Annie! And I love 10 Loving Ways to Handle Toddler Defiance! Very succinct and helpful tips!

January 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDionna @ Code Name: Mama

Hi! My question actually has nothing to do with this particular post. I'm trying to find a post I read a few weeks ago that talked about toddlers aged 1-3, and how a good thing to focus on during this age is not losing ground, ie, rather than worrying about making progress, just try not to move backwards in behavior. I have NO idea where I read it, and thought it might have been here. Was it? If you could help me, that would be wonderful! Thank you!

January 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea

Beautifully written. Especially the part about Reassure. I would add a 4th R for after the inevitable times when a tantrum or melt-down as happened - Reconnect. A tantrum, no matter how tearful, enraged, prolonged, or destructive, needs to end with a Reconnect between parent(s) and child. Sort of like Reassure on steroids. Tantrums are actually very upsetting to toddlers, especially when parents get drawn in emotionally (which is going to happen to some degree - we are all human). It does wonders to heal the relationship and your toddler's self-image and sense of security. Hug your toddler, tell your toddler you love them *no matter what*, snuggle, wipe tears and boogies, let them know that we all get angry sometimes, and if they have broken something in their tantrum, help them fix it or reassure them that it doesn't matter. I have an extremely tantrum-prone 3-yo and it's been a very, very long year. The only thing that has gotten us through is Reconnect.

January 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichele

great post, thanks for adding me!!! I agree about reconnecting @Michele. I also think that with "Reaction" we have to be really aware of what our body language and facial expressions are telling out toddler. For example, in the past if my toddler has hit me, I kind of exaggerate my facial expression so he truly understand how I feel. My tone of voice, and body language will match what my face is expressing (usually sadness, or hurt) so he can see how I feel and hear it from my voice. This almost always elicits an empathic response from him where he offers an apology and hugs and kisses to me along with "Sowwee Mom- but I'm angwwee". And then we talk about what made him angry and solve it together. This has taken a lot of practice on my part though (3rd kid), and if I had too I would practice in the bathroom mirror so I am prepared when those moments arise.

January 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSarah Blackwell

I don't think that was here, Andrea. Sorry.

January 7, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting


January 7, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Thanks for all this amazing information. Some days I feel so lost handling my toddler twins, and this article is full of constructive ideas.

January 7, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbea.

Thanks so much for posting this. It's one of the prongs we try to use with our toddler. Continuing the "R" theme, we also try to use "reinforce." When I see my almost-3 year old doing something well (sitting on the couch, not jumping on it; carefully opening a container; putting something away, cooperating in taking medication) I try to praise the specific behavior I want him to continue using. "You're sitting so calmly!" "You're listening so well!" "Thank you for being so kind to that baby!" "Oh, I love when you share! Thank you!" that sort of thing.

January 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrigid Keely

LOVED this post! We have a 14mo daughter, and have just started sitting for an 11mo little girl. Both are so different and it has been a change to respond appropriately to each girl as they learn about the world around them. We will be using this approach! Thanks!

January 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLin Snow

Thanks for the link, Annie!

January 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNaomi

Thanks so much for the mention, Annie! I've been out of the loop recently, but I've been enjoying this series of toddler posts. Here, you've really captured the idea that dealing with toddlers is a process, a path, and quite a challenging journey! Thanks again :)

January 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSylvia@MaMammalia

Thanks for posting this. My second kid is 2.5 years old. If she didn't have so much damn spunk, I'd probably say that she has awful behavior! We sometimes wonder if our first kid was just really good and kid #2 is more representative of toddlerhood, or if she is just a bit more to handle than the average toddler. At any rate, it's nice to have this guide - we are recently experiencing a hitting phenomenon and am glad to have found your other post (through this one) about how to handle that. I'm really looking forward to delving into the other links!

January 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJeanne Garbarino

Really great post. I wish I'd found a write-up like this when Donovan was a young toddler. I had a lot of trouble figuring out what sort of a discipline approach to take-- I didn't like time-outs but wasn't sure what to do instead, and still had some of that sense of "well, but how will he LEARN if he's not PUNISHED?!" which I knew I didn't really believe but is hard to shake when your kid is being defiant.

I know a lot of it is probably just his personality, but it's pretty awesome to see how well he handles himself sometimes now, I think at least partially as a result of using gentle discipline. Helps reassure me and stick to it now that Quinn's entering toddlerhood, too.

January 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMarcy

Thank you for the useful advice and resources. I would add two more: Redirect, as in "don't hit me, if you want to hit something you can hit the bed instead", and the most important of all : RESPECT. I see a lot of talk about unconditional love, but I think unconditional respect is even more important. The more often you manage to treat your child - of any age - with respect, the more they will learn to treat others with respect.

I really like the books by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, starting with Liberated Parents, Liberated Children. A wealth of practical and straightforward alternatives to yelling, hitting, blaming, moralising etc, which make respectful communications easier.

January 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFran

I love this blog its really helping .keep It up

January 8, 2012 | Unregistered Commentertemmy

This really hit home for me. My daughter is a daredevil at 18 months and while she hasn't hit the age of defiance, I feel like she's about to run head-long into my permissiveness barrier any day. Thanks for putting it (and all the great links!) together.

January 9, 2012 | Unregistered Commentermeridith

This is a great reminder of how parents need to be in control of themselves, not just their toddler. My daughter also kicks and screams at diaper changing time, and in the past I've always held her down and said "NO!", but now I have a different approach to try.
Thanks for all the great links to!

January 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTasha

[...] 3 Rs of Toddler Discipline: Repetition, Reaction, Reassurance [...]

There are several forms of discipline that prove effective with children depending on their personalities and the particular situation or circumstance. The form of discipline you use will also depend on the age of your child. For example, using time-out for a seven year-old who is not sharing or not treating their friends nicely is fine. But try using that on a two year-old and you’re asking for trouble because a two year-old simply doesn’t have the capability to understand the concept.

Acceptable forms of discipline include:

Taking away privileges and possessions
Requiring your child to suffer the consequences of their actions (within reason and safety)
Talking to them sternly

Unacceptable forms of discipline include:

Hitting—this IS different from spanking
Public embarrassment and humiliation
Breaking promises
Physical neglect

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