Q: My 1-year-old has started slapping us. He also screams a lot, often for no reason, or at least we can’t figure out the reason. He is a very busy little boy and won’t sit still for longer than a few seconds. Is it too early to begin disciplining him?
A: If by “discipline” you mean punishing him in some way when he slaps or screams, the answer is yes, he is much too young for this sort of approach to do anything but make matters much worse. Until age 2 at the very least, a child’s attention span is too short for him to make the connection between misbehavior and a specific consequence. There are exceptions to this general rule, but it’s better to err on the side of caution. Between the second and third birthdays, attention span lengthens to the point where the child can make and remember simple associations of that sort.
That doesn’t mean, however, that you have to let your son slap and scream to his heart’s content for another year or two. Concerning the former, the key is to anticipate when he’s likely to slap and put him down before it occurs. If it’s impossible to put him down or you’re taken somewhat by surprise, then restrain his hand or block it. Then, gently holding his hand, look at him and say, “No.” Don’t yell, but say it firmly, making sure you have his attention. At that point, put him down and walk away from him—again, if you can.
As for screaming for no reason, that’s what some infants do when they find their voice. It’s comparable to what puppies sometimes do when they discover they can bark: They begin barking at everything and anything. The only thing you can do about this is ignore it. If you don’t, it’s only going to get worse. If he’s screaming incessantly and for no discernible reason other than to hear himself scream, pick him up and put him gently in his crib and walk away. Then go back and pick him up when he stops. Mind you, I make no guarantees with any of these recommendations because there is no “one size fits all solution” for these sorts of problems with infants and young toddlers.
As for your son’s constant state of activity, some toddlers are very active and others are not. Again, I make no guarantees, but I do have three suggestions that should make the situation more tolerable for all concerned.
First, I strongly recommend that you childproof your home. Put up any and all household objects that present danger to him or you don’t want broken. You should also gate off the kitchen, stairs, and any other area of the home that is impossible to childproof. The idea is to allow him as much freedom of movement and exploration as possible.
Second, eliminate toy clutter. Children of all ages will play more creatively and independently with five toys than they will with fifty. The more toy clutter, the more the child will demand attention and engage in purposeless activity. Fewer toys allows a child to focus more effectively and therefore be less “driven.”
Third, eliminate electronic “noise” to the greatest degree possible. Turn off the television while he’s awake, for example. Just as noise pollution agitates young children, a quiet home has a calming effect.
A psychologist, Rosemond answers questions at www.rosemond.com.