Q: Our 16-month-old daughter is my first child.She has been a very "easy" baby from the beginning -- sleeping through the night at 4 weeks, eating a variety of foods very well and weaning herself. She has been flexible about rearranging her schedule around our travel, is good with babysitters and enjoys an assortment of children and adults.
When she was about 7 months old, I began to say a clear "no" and place my hand on hers before she touched an object I didn't want her to touch. At the same time, we presented her with many "yesses" -- objects she was allowed to explore and play with. She has understood "yes" and "no" ever since.
A few months ago I noticed that she easily distracted herself with a bottle, books or toys if she was getting frustrated but that her frustration really didn't go away. Instead, it spilled into other activities; she would throw food on the floor at mealtimes, or cry loudly while putting on her jacket. Finally, during one of these outbursts I sat down with her, held her and let her cry it out. She angrily resisted me at first but as I persisted she slowly relaxed. After a couple of sessions -- which became fewer and shorter than the first -- she tended to be more loving.
What does her behavior mean when she initially resists my attempts to comfort her during a tantrum?
A: Your daughter's reaction has been the classic picture of a happy, healthy, well-reared child, and her newfound frustrations are classic, too.
You're at one of those watersheds of parenthood, when the discipline that has worked at one age does not work as well at the next. By 16 months, a child has a much greater need to explore, to take apart, to try -- and occasionally to fail. To thwart this primitive need repeatedly could change the way nature intended your little girl to grow.
For the next year and a half, you'll have to work much harder to stop her from hurting herself and from hurting property, but it will be more effective if you make it hard for the hurts to happen at all.
You already do this when you buckle her in the car seat, feed her nutritious meals, put an expansion gate at the stairs, plug empty sockets, lock the kitchen cabinet that holds the cleaning supplies and make sure she's warm when she goes outside.
You should also protect your possessions -- and your temper -- by putting precious breakables on a high shelf for a few years, wastebaskets out of reach during the day and books jammed tightly into the bookcase. There's no point in surrounding a child with a hundred teases, each one freighted with a "no."
This is not a retreat from discipline but an acknowledgment of reality.
Your child doesn't think like you do and consequently she doesn't have a conscience like yours. In fact, at 16 months, she doesn't have a conscience at all.
It's true that she usually knows what she should and shouldn't do if you tell her, and she tries to oblige -- not because she thinks you're right but because she loves you. This obedience takes a great deal of effort on her part, however, putting her at war with herself and with you. It's anger that makes her resist when you hold her, just as it made her throw her food around and have those scenes.
If you continued to forbid certain objects -- instead of putting them away -- there would be so many "no's" in her world that the problem would get worse, with her anger affecting her sleep, her meals or her independence. It would also be harder for you to enjoy your daughter's visitors, for other children wouldn't be so obedient. This would keep you hovering, which neither you nor they would enjoy.
Some things, of course, can't be put out of reach: the stereo, the telephone, the knobs on the stove, the bathtub taps (since one is hot) and, of course, the treasures at other houses you visit.
Your own tried technique will keep her away from those things most of the time, but it's better to distract her when she makes a grab for the flowers, rather than confront her. Offer her another toy or pick her up to look out the window, take her into another room or waltz her about like a queen.
This will help to reduce the clash of wills. By 3, your child will be reasonably well-behaved -- because that's the way children are at 3 -- and by 4 she'll begin to know the difference between good and bad, because that's the way they are at 4. You can't teach a child to ignore temptation before her conscience begins to work, any more than you can toilet train her before her sphincter muscles develop.
For a good guide to discipline, read Your Child's Mind by Herman Roiphe, MD, and Anne Roiphe ($19.95, St. Martin's). It's a healthy balance between the needs of the child and the reality of family life, which is considerably less idyllic than you may think.
By expecting less of your child and yourself, you'll have more time to play together and to enrich her life -- and yours.
Questions may be sent to P.O. Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.