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Clinical Reference Systems: Pediatric Advisor 10.0

Discipline and Cognitive Development in the Toddler and Preschooler

Children who are 7 years old or younger are at the "pre- abstract level of cognitive development." This means they are unable to deal with abstractions, such as reasoning. For example, a parent may tell her 3-year-old daughter, Jennifer, not to go into the street because there are cars and she might get hit and be hurt. Jennifer may be perfectly capable of repeating such an instruction back to her mom and dad, but that is where her ability ends. It is extremely unlikely that she will be able to actually do what her parent instructs her to do.

Because reasoning with young children doesn't work, parents usually repeat the instruction over and over again, using threats and nagging, such as "If I have to tell you one more time...." When Mom has to repeat the instruction continually, she may begin to feel frustrated and angry. Jennifer, unable to comply, begins to feel that Mom does not like her because she gives threats and yells at her. Over time, repeated attempts to reason with a child can result in lowering the child's self-esteem. As this process goes on, day after day, the parent gets more and more frustrated and the child develops a very poor self-image.

Children learn through repetition. They must have the opportunity to practice the same thing over and over again. If Jennifer needs to be taught not to go into the street, she must be shown this lesson over and over again. Every time that Jennifer goes too near the street, she needs to be disciplined, in an unemotional way. Every time she starts to go toward the street, but stops short of doing so, she needs to be praised. After Jennifer has made 20 or 30 trips towards the street, with some trips resulting in discipline and some in praise, she will learn to stay out of the street.

Parents cannot tell small children once not to do something and realistically expect the child never to do it again. Parents need to understand that teaching involves many repetitions before something is learned. Children must do something both the right way and the wrong way many times before they learn to do it right consistently. Rather than becoming frustrated because learning takes place over a long period of time, parents should understand that they are teaching their child an important skill. The more times a child can experience the contrast between what happens when something is done the right way and when it is done the wrong way, the more quickly and thoroughly the child will learn what the right way is.

Written by E. Christophersen, Ph.D., author of "Beyond Discipline: Parenting That Lasts a Lifetime."
Copyright 1999 Clinical Reference Systems