At What Age Do Toddlers Understand Discipline?

What's Covered

Did you know that physical punishment is not necessarily effective in correcting your child’s behavior? It only leads to aggression, lesser attachment to the parents, anxiety, depression, poorer intellectual capacity, and impaired conscience development. (A.B Smith, 2004)[1]

I know that you are here to be informed and become the best parent for your child. But please know that as you are reading this, you’re already considered as one.

Guidance for Effective Discipline

Toddlers should have a daily routine that you must follow like the time of eating, sleeping, and awakening. You must also learn to recognize your child’s pattern and respond flexibly to his or her needs. As your child learns to explore on their own, be also mindful of the hazards outside, and inside your home. However, a firm “no” is an effective way to verbally communicate with your child but remember not to expect reasoning, verbal commands, and reprimands from them.

What are the three types of discipline?

  1. Preventive discipline – this is keeping your child engage in activities that he or she enjoy, it makes them preoccupied and helps them to turn aside misbehavior.[2] It somehow “prevents” bad behavior to arise. Here are some of the activities that I recommend you must try with your child.
Springflower Wooden Toddler Jigsaw Puzzle
Your kid will develop his or her focus, and be smarter among other kids. It will also enrich the learning capacities of your kid that will prepare them to solve future challenges.
Toddler Puzzle for Kids
This activity book will improve your kid’s attention, and will prepare them for school so that they would enjoy more of school activities. It will also train your child’s cooperation of senses, and logical thinking that will further nourish their cognitive skills.
  • Supportive discipline – this is when you witness the misbehavior is happening right before your eye, and you act quickly to stop the misbehavior from escalating.[3]
  • Corrective discipline – this disciplinary measure aims to correct behavior to prevent it from being worse and/ or to prevent it from happening again.[4]

At what age do toddlers understand consequences?

Children ages 3-4 are starting to learn how to follow simple rules and can understand the consequences of their behavior. As your child grows up, they become more social and you as their parent must also learn to integrate your discipline strategies for your child to be responsible, and independent so that you will have a positive parent-child relationship. Here are the books that will be useful for you to learn different discipline strategies.

No-Drama Discipline
It is the book that is perfect for a calm and loving way to connect with your child. This will make your child grow more independent, and has a positive outlook in life.
1-2-3 Magic
This book helps you to have a calm and happy home for your kids. This will also lessen your stress, and have mindful parenting.

Is it normal for a 3-year-old to be defiant?

Toddlers in ages 1-3 are experiencing their hard times too, and of course, they are naturally defiant. Your child has so many feelings on their own that they didn’t even understand, scenarios where they choose to hurt themselves, to stay hungry, or to cry on completely-totally harmless things.[5] I once saw a video where a child cry because her mother breaks his cookie, so that’s one of many examples that I know all of us can relate to. Remember that very young children like toddlers depend on their behavior on experience and the input of their caregiver.[6] For the time your child experiences his or her ups and downs, and emotional wellbeing I recommend you this parenting book that you will surely love as it talks about your child’s challenges in their early ages, and for you to nurture and raise them to be a good citizen.

The Emotional Life of the Toddler
You will understand more of your child’s challenges, and how their minds work. This book will help you to shape your child’s development and will also help them in their wellbeing.

What is typical behavior for a 3-year-old?

From time to time, you may notice the behavior of your toddler child to be disobedient. For example, when he or she refuses to eat the food you’re giving them; your child is trying to explore his or her independence at this stage, also by interacting with other people as they are a social being and it’s normal. In a worst-case scenario, they are also beginning to be aggressive towards you or other people. You might not stop this from happening as this is a part of their developmental stages. But of course, you can do something to avoid and eradicate these kinds of negative behavior.[7]

  1. Monitor their sleep and nutrition. Make sure that there are no disruptive noises or lights when it’s bedtime. If your child’s health is put as your utmost concern, their physical and mental wellbeing will follow.
  2. Limit your child’s option and alter their environment if they are aggressive. You must remove them from their aggression in starting to eradicate this kind of ‘bad behavior’. A baby-proof-room will make your life much easier as while you are disciplining them, you won’t worry about them making accidents. I recommend things that you will be for their safe-space essentials.
Children’s Exercise Puzzle
You won’t have to worry about your children having bumps from a fall-down accident.
  • Consult your pediatrician for other concerns. Extreme behavioral cases are not easy to solve on your own, if you think that you needed professional advice please don’t hesitate to do so.

What should I be teaching a 3-year-old?

Many parenting books tell you the dos and don’ts of parenting. It is indeed overwhelming to absorb it in one go right? But here’s what you and I can do. Let us put ourselves into the shoes of a young mind. What do you feel when you don’t know the things around you? I know you want to jump off that bed, to reach that bright half-eaten red heart-shaped thing on the ground and you wanted to put it in your mouth to taste it. See? You are very curious to experience things, and nothing else. You are just waiting for someone to teach you things just like a blank pure white canvas is waiting for its painter. You may hate me for this, but I give you the decision. What kind of behavior, perspectives, and morals do you want to input to your child?

How much does a 3-year-old understand?

According to a study, by the time your kid reaches the age of 3 years they could understand the following:[8]

  • They understand the language and speak more clearly
  • They can engage in simple question and answer games, and;
  • They could count at least three objects correctly
  • They should know their first and last name

Along with this, here’s what I recommend for your child’s fruitful learning journey!

My First Toddler Coloring Book
This is a great book for your child’s educational development. He or she will surely have fun while learning. This will practice your child’s sharp minds, and learn independently.
My Preschool Workbook
This book will prepare your child to school. Your kid will become more confident, and smart among his or her other peers.
But That Won’t Make Me Sleep
This bedtime storybook will engage your kid’s focus. You will develop a good bond with your child, and it will enhance their imagination skills that are vital for their cognitive development.

What is an effective discipline?

According to pediatricians, there are three vital elements that an effective discipline system should have.[9]

  1. A learning environment that has a positive, and supportive parent-child relationship. This includes your encouragements with your child and showing them that you could be trusted by them. Your home must be a safe space for them to explore, and develop their characters.
  2. A well-organized teaching strategy, and nourishing of well-desired behaviors. This includes positive reinforcement of good behaviors. Simply say “good job” or “I like what you do” to a certain situation where your child shows good behavior. In this way, he or she will recognize what behavior you are expecting from them.  
  3. A strategy to remove the undesired behaviors. Different positive strategies to discipline your child require a lot of patience and knowledge. But don’t worry, I got you!  

How do you discipline a toddler?

First, you must lower your expectations as they are children who still don’t know how to handle their emotions. They are requiring gentle handling as you are imposing positive visual representation on them. According to the book “Positive Discipline” by Jane Nelsen (2011), strategies for effective parenting must include these puzzle-like pieces to better understand the bigger concept of how to discipline your child positively.[10]

Understand the goal of your child’s misbehavior

Is your child hungry, sleepy, or tired? Assess the situation by pulling out the roots of the reason for the misbehavior. See if you miss something on their daily routine or they are feeling unwell. If your child is frequently having an upset stomach or fever it is recommended that you visit your pediatrician.  

Include kindness and firmness at the same time

You must include kindness and firmness at the same time, as kindness alone can lead to non-compliance, and on the other hand, using just firmness alone can lead to over strictly disciplinary measures hence also leads to non-compliance of your child.

Mutual respect between you and your child

Show respectful gestures around your child, and teach him or her to be also one. Respect in a child-parent relationship boosts your child’s trust and has a positive outcome on your child’s behavior towards other people.

Take mistakes as an opportunity to learn

This is for both sides of the parent and the child. There is no perfect parent as there is also no perfect child, but take your past parenting mistakes as an opportunity for you to be a better parent and be a better person for your child’s life. This is also applicable when your child do a mistake, give them a chance to correct the behavior by guiding them on what is right. Big NO to physical punishment as this would not do any good to your child. It only creates future traumas, and most probably affects his or her social well-being. 

Teach your child their social responsibility

If your child learns how to respect other people, they would discover their social responsibility. When you teach your children to respect, be kind, and say that all people regardless of their race or gender have a part of themselves too they will treat other people as humans.[11]

Attend family and class meetings

You are continuously tasked to prepare your child with their engagements in social gatherings or meetings that will enhance their social skills. Therefore, they will learn how to adapt to economic, psychosocial, and physical interactions.[12]


Encouraging your children and letting them do their ‘thing’ reflects more than what you think. 4-year-old toddlers have been aware of labels that you don’t teach them but they have learned on their own, and this is also the time where your child is starting to build their happy places.[13] Teach them to encourage their happy places, and let them be as unique as they are.

I recommend you to read this very educational e-book as it covers vast information about child discipline and parenting dilemmas.

Do toddlers need discipline?

Every action correlates with consequences whether it is positive or negative. Parents may manipulate the reinforcement of the consequences that their child might get. But sometimes, lack of knowledge, and/or having just traditional knowledge might lead you to open the doors that might negatively affect your child. A study conducted during the 1990s says that the more extreme the consequences are, the more your child will comply with you.[14] But hey, we are in the 21st century, new studies and researches have been updated and more positive approaches are discovered. So why bother spanking your child when you can live a better life not dwelling with your everyday parenting struggle? I give you the time to think of it.

What happens if you don’t discipline your child?

Your child would probably live a life with difficulty in dealing with their problems in the future! Also, they may develop destructive behavior that you don’t correct and it could affect their future relationships. As discipline comes in any way, just a reminder to be loving, firm, and consistent whenever disciplinary actions are necessary for your child. Here’s what I recommend best for your harmonized relationship with your child. Educational games, very informative, interactive books, and bedtime stories that you and your child will surely love! And before you even know it, you are developing a good connection with your child.

Cora Cooks Pancit
This book will develop your connection with your child. This will help your child to learn and develop the importance of good relationships with other people.
My Own Leaptop
This laptop toy will make your child smarter than the other kids his or her age. He or she will learn how to be independent, and self-exploration.
Memory Match Farm Game
This will enhance your child’s critical thinking skills. You and your child will have a more healthy child-parent relationship.
Shapes and Colors
This will enhance your child’s reading comprehension that is vital for his or her learning development. He or she will grow more responsive, and developed to be more intellectually capable to solve future problems.
Little Kids First Big Book of Why
This book will be loved by your curious little one, this will help to feed their curious minds. It will help your child to be holistically smart, and develop a good change of conversation with you and other people.

Age-appropriate discipline chart

Ingesting too much information might be overwhelming, here’s a summarized age-appropriate discipline for you.[15]

Ages 0-2Ages 3-5Ages 6-8
Calmly say “no” to touching dangerous or unacceptable objects.Set a time-out space (1-2 minutes) to calm down.Be sure they have their safe-spaces to avoid an accident.Be a good example for your child.Be gentle and loving.Communicate and set household rules.Explain before you punish them for bad behavior.Set a time-out space (1-2 minutes) or until they calm down.Commend good behavior.Give clear and direct commands.Teach them the right thing to do; not only say what’s wrong.Set a time-out space (1-2 minutes) or until they calm down.Be consistent. Don’t say unrealistic threats.Set goals and give chance to earn back privileges.

Proactive and Reactive Responses

Proactive responses are interfering to prevent the occurrences of bad behavior in the future. It is an action that can come up with an answer before a problem occurs. However, being reactive on the other hand is an action that solves a problem when it happens.[16]

Final Thoughts

Your child expects you to be someone who will support and encourage them to be better people. They depend on their attitudes and behavior based on what they are put upon. Being a parent who is gentle, loving, and firm at the same time is the formula for a well-disciplined child. For a better understanding of their young minds, I recommend you these awesome books No-Drama Discipline, , and The Emotional Life of the Toddler.

[1]Smith Anne B. “How do infants and toddlers learn the rules? Family discipline and young children.” International Journal of Early Childhood 36.2 (2004):27-41.

[2]Charles, C. M. “Building Classroom Discipline Eight Edition.”Building Classroom Discipline Eight Edition, 2005.

[3]“EDTC 5100: The Learning Environment: Preparing for the First Day of School.” Iteach, Accessed 26 Mar. 2021.

[4]Lopez, Gelo. “What Is ‘Corrective Discipline’?” Stack Exchange, 12 July 2015.

[5]Lieberman, Alicia F. The emotional life of the toddler. Simon and Schuster, 2017.

[6]Brownell, Celia A., and Claire B. Kopp, eds. Socioemotional development in the toddler years: Transitions and transformations. Guilford Press, 2010.

[7] Hamilton, Elizabeth. “Developmental Pediatricians: My Toddler Has Started Hurting Kids on Purpose for No Obvious Reason. He Is Aggressive and Angry. We Used to Co-Sleep but Now He Doesn’t Want to Anymore. What Is Going On?” Quora.Com, 12–04.

[8] “Communication and Your 2- to 3-Year-Old.” Kid’s Health. Accessed 29 Mar. 2021.

[9]Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health. “Guidance for effective discipline.” Pediatrics 101.4 (1998): 723-728.

[10]Nelsen, Jane. Positive discipline: The classic guide to helping children develop self-discipline, responsibility, cooperation, and problem-solving skills. Ballantine Books, 2011.

[11] “Keeley McDonald’s Answer to How Can I Make Sure My White, Male Child Respects and Lives Equality among All Genders and Races? – Quora.” Keeley McDonald, 10 Oct. 2016.

[12] Edwards, Carolyn Pope, and Wen–Li Liu. “Parenting toddlers.” Handbook of Parenting Volume 1 Children and Parenting 44 (1995).

[13] Smith, Kate.“Tenacity: How Do You Encourage Your Child to Not Give Up?” Quora.Com, 10 May 2016.

[14] Larzelere, Robert E., and Jack A. Merenda. “The effectiveness of parental discipline for toddler misbehavior at different levels of child distress.” Family Relations (1994): 480-488.

[15] O’Donnell, Lauren. “Disciplining Your Child.” Kids Health, June 2018.

[16] Venkata, Satyaprasad. “Proactive versus Reactive Approach. Which Is Better?” Research Gate, 27 Dec. 2016.

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Vivian Perry

Vivian Perry

Mother of 3 kids. Enjoy reading parenting books and studied child care degree. Vivian loves to learn and write about parenting tips and help her kids to grow positively with grit mindset.