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Jan Faull, MEd, advises a mom on establishing appropriate rules and discipline when there is a seven-year age gap.
Q. I have a 9-year-old and a 2-year-old and I am at a loss as to how to discipline them both equally yet fairly. I try to make uniform rules, but it is difficult since I cannot expect a 2-year-old to be as responsible as the 9-year-old when it comes to the rules and chores. Additionally, my youngest seems to be going through a "terrible twos" phase and I am in a constant battle of wills. What can I do? I am at my wit's end.
A. Your children are at completely different places in their development and there's no way to treat them the same. Rules that are appropriate for your 2-year-old will not work with your school-age child, and vice-versa. How you parent the 9-year-old is far different than how you must parent the 2-year-old.
Right now, your actions may not seem equal, and that's alright. You're treating each according to their respective developmental ages, so don't get caught in the fairness trap. You don't have to answer to your kids nor do you need to convince them that you're being a fair parent. You just need to know deep in your heart that you're doing what's right for them, individually.
As for your toddler in the "terrible twos" phase, you must understand that he's at an age when he likes to make things happen. He's on the go with no inner controls. He's a highly curious little scientist trying to understand his world. Cause and effect are his methods for doing just that. So he turns on lights, spills water, drops food, and dumps his toys. Unfortunately temper tantrums and disruptive behavior when he can't have his way are part of this discovery process.
During this time, it is essential that you create a safe environment in which he can continue to explore. However, you also need to establish a few strict rules with respect to his safety and enforce them consistently. When he tests a rule, show a stern face as you move toward him to stop him from doing whatever it is he shouldn't be doing. He has to learn to obey you and you have to have the patience to help him understand.
With age comes responsibility, and at this time you should expect your 9-year-old to set the table, empty the garbage, feed the dog, tidy his bedroom, and complete homework assignments. Your 2-year-old, on the other hand, is just learning household rules. You need to reinforce them with him. So you tell him, "No food in the living room. No hitting the dog!" You show him how to brush his teeth before bed and where to put his toys when he's finished playing. But you can't expect him to maintain a similar level of tidiness as his brother. At this age he only likes to help others complete household chores and he's just beginning to learn to put his toys away.
Age also means different privileges. Your older child might have privileges like using the computer, going to a friend's house to spend the night, participating in after school activities, riding his bicycle around the neighborhood, and staying up until 9:00. However, little brother goes with mom to play group, rides his tricycle in the backyard, isn't allowed to touch the computer, and is in bed at 8:00 each night. Taking away privileges and assigning more responsibilities (read chores) as a means of discipline is appropriate for your older child, but not for the toddler.
Keep in mind too that once your toddler moves into preschool, your older son will be entering the beginning stages of adolescence. Again, they'll be at completely different levels of development; and again, you'll be required -- as a responsible, loving parent -- to adjust your approach and expectations accordingly.
Jan Faull, MEd, is a veteran parent educator and the author of four parenting books, including Darn Good Advice -- Baby and Darn Good Advice -- Parenting. She writes a biweekly parenting advice column for this site and a weekly parenting advice column in the Seattle Times. Jan Faull is the mother of three grown children and lives in the Seattle area.