Child Development and How it Relates to Discipline

Being a parent is like going back to school to take on an additional course after you’ve graduated – sort of like doing your MBA while you’re working.  On my bedside table, I’ve got the following books going concurrently:

  • The No-Cry Discipline Solution – Elizabeth Pantley
  • Tools of the Mind: The Vygotskian Approach to Early Childhood Education – Elena Bodrova and Deborah J Leong
  • How to Teach Your Baby to be Physically Superb – Glenn Doman
  • Bright from the Start – Jill Stamm

I’ve been trying to keep just ahead of Gavin’s and Gareth’s individual development so that I can apply what I’ve learned that feels appropriate at the right time.  It works well because I’m sure I’d forget to implement if I read things too far ahead of time.  To be honest, I doubt I’d be able to read that far ahead anyway.  Some days it feels like I’m barely keeping up!  I’m sure if I were back in school, I’d be on the borderline.

The funny thing about being a parent is that you’re never done learning.  Even though I’ve been through all the stages Gareth is going through and about to go through with Gavin, I’m still learning new things all the time.  Having been through all those stages with Gavin hasn’t given me the magical answers to every little snag I hit with Gareth.  Although I did the best I could for Gavin at that time, in retrospect, there were so many areas in which I could have done better.  The knowledge of my shortfall is what drives me in this endless pursuit of parenting knowledge.

Regardless of how much you think you know, there is still always something you don’t know.  Even with the things you think you have down pat – something changes and you’re back to square one.  For example, I used to have a formula for getting Gavin to change his clothes without him flying into a tantrum.  Somewhere along the way, it stopped working and now I’m back to finding new tricks for old problems.  Solutions that work for a younger toddler don’t necessarily work on an older child because children grow and everything changes.

I have been criticised for being a text-book parent and I have been told I should rely more on my parental instincts instead of listening to the advices from books.  The irony is while I was being told to stop listening to the advice from books, I was expected to listen to the advice from others.  What a paradox.  But I digress – I’m not here to gripe today.

One of the benefits of reading widely on the subject of parenting is being able to learn about what “normal” child development should be like.  Often while we are busy parenting our own children, we tend to catch a rather narrow view of what it means to be a child.  For instance, when I was first told my son’s speech development was precocious I thought they were trying to be polite.  I had no idea whether Gavin was ahead or behind because I didn’t know what an average kid his age should be doing.  Similarly, with Gavin’s recent behavioural difficulties, I had been questioning myself if there was something I had done wrong.  Was the reason why Gavin was “acting up” so much these days because of my mismanagement?  If I had done things differently, would he be better behaved today?

In Bright from the Start, Jill Stamm talks about child development and the wiring up of the brain.  At birth, very little of the brain functions are “online”.  Initially, only the main functions are online – those that control the heart, breathing, digestive functions, etc.  All the functions necessary for life.  As your baby grows, other parts of the brain comes online.  It is a little akin to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – as each level is fulfilled, your baby moves on to develop the next level.

One of the last parts of the brain to come online and become fully developed are the frontal lobes.  They are responsible for skills such as planning, abstract reasoning, and understanding of consequences.  The frontal lobes are not fully developed until high school and beyond.  This is the reason “why toddlers don’t understand they shouldn’t touch a hot stove, school-age children have trouble with logic, and even high school teens whom parents expect to ‘know better’ don’t always make good decisions”.

When it comes to discipline, it is important to understand these things about our children so that our expectations of them are not unreasonable.  Dr Momma, in her post about Peaceful Parenting listed the following point about parenting in peace:

“Think about the expectations you have of your children. Are they realistic? Are they fair? Children are often held to higher expectations than adults – i.e. “You must always tell the truth,” when lying by adults is often excepted or overlooked. Children are often punished for breaking a glass, spilling the milk, or losing his jacket; when adults are not. Children are frequently punished for getting a bad grade, but adults are not punished for getting a bad performance evaluation. In regards to school work, the issue should be, whether or not the child did the best he or she could.”

It is true that we expect more out of our children than we do of an adult.  Why is that?  And when we reflect on a child’s development and capabilities, it makes it even more unfair to have such high expectations.

Another example I read about in Tools of the Mind is that three year old toddlers are still trying to internalise lessons they have learned.  The classic example is the child that says he should not do [insert activity that parent has disapproved of] and yet does it anyway.  When my brother was a child, my Mum observed him playing with the TV and changing the channels from one to another to another.  All the while he was saying, “Daddy says, ‘Don’t play with the TV’.”  When Gavin was younger, he would tug at the door handles of the car and say to himself, “Mummy says, ‘Don’t play with the door’.”

As a parent listening and observing these things without understanding how a child’s brain is wiring up, it is normal to think that these children are being “naughty” and deliberately disobeying their parents by doing the very act they have been told not to do.  Yet if we realised that at this age they still in the process of internalising the lesson, we would understand that the child is not intentionally misbehaving.  He can’t help himself.  Bodrova and Leong state in Tools of the Mind that three year old children can point out when another child is doing something wrong but are still unable to realise when they themselves are doing the same “misdeed”.

This was an important lesson for me because I’ve realised that of late I have been treating Gavin as if he were an adult with fully functioning mental capabilities for reasoning and understanding of consequences.  Sometimes I forget that he is only three years old and that he is behaving exactly as a three year old should behave.


Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

4 thoughts on “Child Development and How it Relates to Discipline

  1. I was enlightened after reading an excerpt of The Happiest Toddler in the Block by Dr. Karp ( and bought the DVD for my SIL with a toddler. I have since adjusted my expectations for my boy and have reminded my husband that babies and toddlers are not very logical people. That also links up with starting right brain education at this age. Creative and ‘silly’ ways to discipline them may work better than explaining too much about why certain things cannot be done.

    Shall be borrowing the DVD to watch soon. 🙂


  2. I have both of Dr Karp’s books – Happiest Baby and Happiest Toddler on the Block. I also have the Happiest Toddler DVD – I bought it online from eBay. It’s pretty amazing – it worked when I tried it on my nephew and a friend’s daughter. Unfortunately, it didn’t work quite as well with Gavin, although I haven’t tried it on him of late.

    Perhaps it’s time to dust off that book again and review the tips…


  3. I used to do the growl and it worked pretty well with Gavin. Somewhere along the way I stopped. I don’t know why. It wasn’t intentionally. Perhaps I just dropped it when Gavin started talking. I really can’t remember.


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