Question: If it is natural for a toddler to break all the rules, should he be disciplined for his defiance?
Answer: Many of the spankings and slaps given to toddlers could and should be avoided. They get in trouble most frequently because of their natural desire to touch, bite, taste, smell, and break everything within their grasp. However, this "reaching out" behavior is not aggressive. It is a valuable means for learning and should not be discouraged. I have seen parents slap their two-year-olds throughout the day for simply investigating their world. This squelching of normal curiosity is not fair to the youngster. It seems foolish to leave an expensive trinket where it will tempt him, and then scold him for taking the bait. If little fat-fingers insists on handling the china cups on the lower shelf, it is much wiser to distract him with something else than to discipline him for his persistence. Toddlers cannot resist the offer of a new plaything. They are amazingly easy to interest in less fragile toys, and parents should keep a few alternatives available for use when needed.
When, then, should the toddler be subjected to mild discipline? When he openly defies his parents' spoken commands! If he runs the other way when called, purposely slams his milk glass on the floor, dashes in the street when being told to stop, screams and throws a tantrum at bedtime, hits his friends—these are the forms of unacceptable behavior which should be discouraged. Even in these situations, however, all-out spankings are not often required to eliminate the behavior. A firm rap on the fingers or a few minutes sitting on a chair will convey the same message just as convincingly. Spankings should be reserved for a child's moments of greatest antagonism, usually occurring after the third birthday.
I feel it is important to stress the point made earlier. The toddler years are critical to a child's future attitude toward authority. He should be patiently taught to obey, without being expected to behave like a more mature child.
Without watering down anything I have said earlier, I should also point out that I am a firm believer in the judicious use of grace (and humor) in parent-child relationships. In a world in which children are often pushed to grow up too fast, too soon, their spirits can dry out like prunes beneath the constant gaze of critical eyes. It is refreshing to see parents temper their inclination for harshness with a measure of "unmerited favor." There is always room for more loving forgiveness within our homes. Likewise, there's nothing that rejuvenates the parched, delicate spirits of children faster than when a lighthearted spirit pervades the home and regular laughter fills its halls. Heard any good jokes lately?