The toddler years

With toddlers, fathering often means backing up your partner in matters of discipline. Standing your child in the corner and talking tough with them. Making sure they understand that they must change their behaviour. Not hiding behind the newspaper or wandering off in the shopping mall, so that your partner has to do the tough stuff with the little ones.

Stop on command

A child’s ability to stop abruptly, on command, can be vitally important. Every parent has needed to call a child to halt as they run towards traffic or other unseen danger. Starting as a game, this can be practised whenever it occurs to you or whenever you notice that the lesson needs reinforcing.

With an infant, you begin with any fun thing they are doing. Join in with them, then say ‘stop’ and stop them with your hands. For example, in the bath, or pool, both of you slap the water — splash splash splash — then say ‘stop’, holding their hands still. Repeat the game. Say ‘good stopping’, when they do it by themselves. You could swing them around you and say ‘stop’, then swing them until they say ‘stop’ and you obey. Later, they can run on the spot, until you say ‘stop’. Build up to having them stop when they are running forwards.

With older children, include an explanation of its importance. You can also correct them if they are slow in responding, by instructing them: ‘When I say “stop”, you should do it straight away. Start again and show me how you do it straight away. That’s right.’

Benefits: This game helps children learn an automatic reaction that might be lifesaving. By learning in a playful way, with the reward of encouragement, there is built-in pleasure and a feeling of achievement.

If you ever doubt the benefit of a child being able to follow an instruction immediately in a dangerous situation, we recommend the movie Empire of the Sun. In the midst of a fleeing crowd in wartime Shanghai, a young boy is told by his mother to hold on to her hand while they make their way through the throng. As they head towards the only safe escape, the boy drops his prized toy, reaches to get it and is swept away in the crowd. He becomes a prisoner of the Japanese and it is years before his mother sees him again. It’s a memorable image!

The message” session. We were surprised how early it started. She played with the electric flex to the TV and, when told not to, grinned and did it again — a sure sign that discipline time had begun! Jenine took her over to the corner of the lounge and kept her there. She (the little one, not Jenine) squealed and yelled and raged, and looked at me for support. So I went and held her there, too. Jenine and I grinned at each other — the terrible twos already! It was about five minutes before our daughter gave up on her anger and stopped hassling. We repeated the instruction — “hands off electric flexes” (who knows what a two-year-old understands?) — then stood back and watched her. She walked to the middle of the room, eyed the electric flex, eyed us, then went straight over to her toys to play. We’ve had a couple of reinforcing times, but nothing so major. Often, just the mention of “corner” is enough to get her co-operation.’

I’ve seen some dads do the opposite and undermine their partners: ‘Oh, she’s so sweet, don’t be so hard on her.’ Remember that backing up your partner will mean you can both be more relaxed and positive. You can discuss strategies later, but what kids need from parents is a united front if they are to know where they stand.