Clinical Reference Systems: Pediatric Advisor 10.0
Discipline and Cognitive Development in the Toddler
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
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.