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Baby & Toddler Training: 7 Basic Commands You Need to Teach

Updated: Jul 29

There are 7 fundamental commands that you need to train your children to obey by the time they are 18 months of age. Find out why it’s so important to train your children to obey before the age of two.




This is an excerpt from the book Parenting with Focus by Katie Ely.


“For the Lord corrects those he loves, just as a father corrects a child in whom he delights.” - Proverbs 3:12 (New Living Translation)

For most parents, having children is one of life’s greatest joys. But it can also be one of life’s biggest challenges. You can save yourself a lot of headaches if you train your children to obey before the age of two. If you can master that, the rest of childhood will be a whole lot easier.


Unfortunately, many parents think obedience in the first two years is unrealistic. The common strategy today is to redirect toddlers’ attention when they misbehave. In other words, distract them from their bad behavior by offering something else interesting to do. For instance, if your toddler picks up your cell phone, you give her a toy and say, “Here, let’s play with this toy instead of the phone.”


While redirection is a good technique for some circumstances, it shouldn’t be your only method. How in the world are your children going to learn to obey if you constantly ignore their poor behavior and distract them instead? If you simply redirect and distract every time your children do a no-no, your children will never learn to obey.


Along this same line of thinking, another approach is just to tolerate the toddler years. The reasoning goes that children will eventually outgrow their poor behavior. But if you think this "difficult phase" will just pass, think again. While children might outgrow some of their impulsive and childish behavior, they probably will not outgrow an attitude of disobedience.



Lay the Foundation of Obedience Before the Age of Two

I have repeatedly asked parents who have wonderfully behaved children their secret. The answer was almost invariably the same: Teach your children to obey before they are two. You must lay a strong foundation of obedience in the pre-toddler years. It's not easy, and it takes diligence. But if you work hard the first two years, it will save you lots of stress and headaches in later years.


Does this mean your children will obey you each and every time you speak by age two? Unfortunately, no. But by having age two as a goal, you're laying the groundwork for obedience. It may take the entire second year to get your children to consistently obey, but by age three, you should start to see consistent obedience.



Start Early – Around Seven Months of Age

The secret, however, is not to wait until your child is two. Discipline must start much earlier—around seven months of age. This is the time to start teaching your baby the basic commands of obedience.


Remember, the root word of discipline is disciple, which means “to train.” If you want well-behaved children, your focus should be on training correct behavior. Your babies have absolutely no idea what they should and should not do. It’s your job to teach them.


Child psychologist Dr. Burton L. White, in his book Raising a Happy, Unspoiled Child: How Parents Can Help Their Baby Develop into a Secure and Well-adjusted Child, contends that if you don't have your babies under control by the time they are 14 months old, you're headed for those terrible twos. Under control means: Do they lie still for you while being diapered? Do they hit and kick? Do they take no for an answer? Basic obedience should be established by even this young age.


One of the biggest problems parents have with disciplining their pre-toddlers is they are unclear on exactly what their babies can and cannot understand. After all, if they can't understand, it's not fair to reprimand them. But most babies can understand long before they can speak. And even before babies can understand your words, they understand the tone of your voice.


Somewhere between six and nine months, most babies will understand the word no, with seven-and-a-half months being about the average age. If your babies continue to act like they don't understand you by age one, consider getting their hearing checked, or consult a pediatrician.


The Foundation of Effective Discipline—Love!

The preschool years are the time to lay the foundation of effective discipline—love. Babies and toddlers need lots and lots of love! They need to be held, kissed, cuddled, and talked to a lot. They need a childproofed area where they can play and explore. But this is also the time to lay the basic foundation of obedience. If you don't have a strong foundation in the toddler years, future discipline will be an uphill struggle.


Basic Commands of Obedience

There are seven fundamental commands that you need to train your children to obey by the time they are 18 months of age. Being able to obey these basic commands is the foundation of obedience. However, obedience will not be learned overnight, so start early. The basic commands are:


  1. No. Do not touch.

  2. Come here.

  3. Sit down. (Such as in the grocery cart or highchair.)

  4. Go. (Such as go to your room, get in your highchair.)

  5. Stay. (Such as right beside you in a store.)

  6. Stop.

  7. Lie still. (Such as when you change a diaper.)


Somewhere between five to seven months, work on teaching your children the first command, "No. Do not touch." After that, begin teaching the other commands as they occur.


So how do you teach these basic commands? With Mini-Training Sessions of course! For example, if you want to teach your children the first command, “No. Do not touch,” here’s what you might do:


Train your children that when you say, “No. Do not touch,” they need to:


  1. Look at you.

  2. Clasp both their hands together.


This will take their attention off the forbidden object and give them something specific to do—clasp their hands together. Every time they do it correctly, be sure to get excited and reward them with hugs and kisses.


So let’s say your baby is about to touch your cell phone and you say, “No. Do not touch.” Next ask, “What are you supposed to do?” You might walk over to them and physically move their face to look at you, and then clasp their little hands together. Remember to praise them when they do the right thing.


For the command “Come here,” have them practice coming to you when you call. Make a game of it. When they come, hug, kiss, and tell them how proud you are that they obeyed.


Mini-Training Sessions shouldn’t be long—probably less than a minute. However, do practice these basic commands of obedience often throughout the day.



Consequences for Pre-toddlers

While the consequences for babies and toddlers may differ slightly, the basic philosophy of discipline applies. First, make sure your children know the rule, such as “Do not touch the trashcan. Then, if they disobey, they need to have an immediate consequence. For babies and toddlers, the consequence needs to be immediate or not at all. So as soon as it's clear they understand the basic command, each time they disobey they need to have a consequence.


Remember though, consequences are not appropriate for accidents, mistakes, or exploring new things.


There are essentially four consequences you can use on pre-toddlers:


  1. Verbal Correction

  2. Take Away Object of Misbehavior

  3. Time-out

  4. Slight Swat on Hand


Verbal Correction

The first consequence is a verbal correction. This simply means to scold, such as "No. Do not touch the TV." In the beginning, when you are first training your babies to obey a basic command, begin by giving the instruction. If they don't obey, give them a verbal correction, and physically move them to make them obey.


For instance, let’s say you told your baby not to touch the TV, yet he touches it. Say, "No. Do not touch the TV." Then pick him up and remove him from the forbidden object. Or let’s say the instruction was to "Come here." If he doesn’t respond, give a verbal correction, and physically go and get him.


However, after teaching your children a basic command and they disobey, they need to have an additional consequence.



Take Away the Object of Misbehavior

The second consequence is to take away whatever object they are using to misbehave. For instance, if they are banging their spoon on their highchair, after one warning, take it away. (Don’t forget to use if-then statements. “If you bang your spoon again, then I’m going to take it away.”) If they’re knocking their car against the wall, give them one warning and then take it away. Taking away their precious possession would be their consequence for disobedience.


Time-out

Time-out is the third consequence. For this consequence, babies are removed from the no-no and put into time-out for approximately 1 to 4 minutes. A playpen placed in another room, or the child's crib is an ideal place for time-out for the pre-toddler.


During time-out, toys and blankies should be off limits. For children under 15 months, it is recommended that children be put in time-out for no more than 5 minutes. Generally, 2 to 3 minutes is enough. Be sure to set the timer as soon as you put them in time-out so you don't forget!


For example, if your child is not supposed to touch the blinds and he does, first verbally correct him. Say, "No. Do not touch the blinds." If he does it again, say no again and physically put him in his playpen or crib with no toys or blankets. Then get out of his sight. In 2 to 4 minutes, let him out to play. If he touches the blinds again, repeat the verbal correction and the time-out. Repeat as often as necessary.


Some might disagree that blankies should be off limits during time-out. However, for toddlers, time-out is never more than 5 minutes. Therefore, I think it’s acceptable to take away their blankie for that short time period. Time-out should not be a pleasant experience.


If you're concerned that your children might associate their crib with a place of punishment, don't be. Your approach to how you place your babies there will be totally different and they'll understand. When you place them in the crib to sleep, you use a loving, sweet voice and hug, kiss, and cover them up with their blanket before leaving. When you put them in the crib for time-out, you're giving them a verbal correction and taking away their blanket. The difference will be obvious.


For older toddlers who can crawl out of a playpen or crib, consider putting a childproof doorknob guard on the inside of their bedroom door. Or you could cut their bedroom door in half to create a "Dutch" door like they have at nurseries. Hang both halves up, and put the doorknob on the outside of the bottom door. This way your children can't get out, yet you can easily check on them.


I always wanted to do this to my sons’ bedroom door but never did because I didn’t want to mess up the door. However, by the time my twins were school-age, their door was so dinged up they needed a new door anyway!


Time-out or isolation is also good when toddlers are whiny or won't take no for an answer. For instance, suppose your child wants you to play with her while you're fixing dinner. You say no, but she keeps asking over and over. Say, "I said no. Don't ask me again. If you ask me again, I'm going to put you in your room for time-out." Then, if she asks you again, immediately put her in her room. It may take a couple of scenarios like that, but she'll eventually figure out you're not kidding.



Slight Swat on Hand

The last option is a swat on the hand. The swat should involve a slight sting but obviously shouldn't hurt your children. A swat on the hand should always be accompanied with a verbal correction. So if your baby touches the lamp after you’ve taught him not to, say, “No. Do not touch." Then swat his little hand.


I can already hear the gasps of horror at the thought of swatting a pre-toddler’s hand. I am not talking about beating children! I’m suggesting that when your pre-toddlers intentionally disobey, you swat their little hand—just enough to give a slight sting.


Many would argue that physical punishment should never be used. Instead, give explanations. But reasoning and explanations are not for toddlers. They don't have the mental capabilities to understand parental reason and logic.


Children of this age are motivated through concrete consequences. They behave the way they do on the basis of rewards and punishments and not with moral reasoning or logic. Can you imagine a toddler saying, "You mean the reason I can't touch the DVR is because I might break it? Oh, that makes sense. I won't touch it again.” They don't care if they break it. They do care, however, if they have an unpleasant consequence that directly affects them.


If you’re concerned that a swat on the hand will teach your children to hit, don’t worry. A swat on the hand does not promote violence. It promotes self-control. And for those who would suggest that a slight swat on the hand is equivalent to child abuse, that is irresponsible and untruthful. A swat on the hand done by loving parents who are using it to stop their child from wrong behavior is not child abuse. It's not even close. Child abuse is venting hostility and frustration toward a child. The other is for love of the child. Abuse is a horrible thing—but so is not disciplining your children.



An Anecdotal Story

Allow me to share a true, anecdotal story. I once taught with a woman who was so sweet. The students and staff loved her. When her daughter was two, her husband’s mother remarried a child psychologist who counseled parents how to raise their children. On one visit to her new in-law’s home, her daughter disobeyed. My friend swatted her daughter’s little hand. Her new in-law went ballistic! He went off on how you should never hit a child and that she was going to damage her child psychologically, etc.


My friend was devastated that a parenting “expert” had told her she was teaching her daughter to hit and be violent. That night, with tears in her eyes, she asked her husband, “Do you really think that I’ve damaged our child because I swatted her hand?” Her husband replied, “Let’s examine the results of his parenting advice. He has two grown sons in their late twenties. Both sons are unemployed, alcoholics, and on drugs. Hmmm. Do you really want to take advice from that parenting “expert”?



First-Time Obedience

As mentioned in Chapter 5, train your children to have first-time obedience. It's just as easy to teach them to obey the first time as it is to obey the fourth time. When you give an instruction, expect them to obey immediately. If they don’t, they should get an immediate consequence. If you train your children from the beginning to obey at once, they will. By teaching them to obey immediately, you're also developing their self-control—the same self-control needed for other virtues of integrity.


It's very important in these early years to let your children know that you are in charge, not them. While they can certainly make little decisions, they need to learn early that you make the final decisions. If you don't establish early who the boss is, they will constantly test you and struggle for power.



Screen Time and Your Preschooler

As discussed in Chapter 10, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends absolutely no screen time for babies under 18 months old, with the exception of video chatting to family members. For toddlers 18 to 24 months old, the AAP recommends no screen time unless watched with an adult who explains what the child is seeing. In other words, don’t allow a toddler to watch media alone. (Many pediatricians and researchers recommend no screen time for children under the age of three.)


For children age two to five, the AAP recommends no more than one hour of media per day. They also recommend no TV on in the background when a preschooler is in the room. Even if the child is not watching it, background TV can delay language development. And of course, every expert reommends absolutely no screens of any kind in a child's bedroom.


Remember, the best thing for babies’ mental and physical development is to talk to them frequently and let them play. No educational technology can compete with that.


But how are you supposed to get anything done without screens to babysit? Well, you could do it the old-fashioned way. If you need to make dinner, have your preschoolers come in the kitchen with you. Let them play with your pots and pans or plastic storage containers. Or have them bring their toys into the kitchen and play while you make dinner. That way, you can talk to them while they play. (A double learning experience!) Tell them everything you’re doing as you make dinner. If they’re old enough, have them “help” you make dinner. Having your children in the kitchen while you cook is a great opportunity for conversation.


If you need to take a shower, put your baby in a playpen or in their room for independent play. Teach your children to entertain themselves. If you can accomplish that, you won’t need to let your child watch a screen for entertainment.


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For more about raising your children with Christian discipline and instruction, get Parenting with Focus by Katie Ely.


Want to connect with other Christian parents in your church or community? Host a small group parenting class. It’s easy with The Parenting with Focus Video Course. Just watch the video and discuss the group discussion questions. Easy—and fun!











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