The Importance of Disciplining Toddlers: The Pyramid Idea

The Importance of Disciplining Toddlers: The Pyramid IdeaWhen I was a young mom, a mentor told me that disciplining children was a lot like a pyramid.

When they’re small, you provide a lot of guidance and discipline. You train them constantly. You follow through with consequences. You’re consistent. You’re persistent. It’s exhausting.

But because you have put in the hard work when they are two, three, and four, they have learned to obey. They have learned to listen to you. They have learned that you love them, and so they tend to be easier to manage. And thus you can relax the rules a little.

By the time they’re teens, you’re relaxing your boundaries around them quite a bit, until you have no real rules at all. You’re preparing them for the real world where they will have to be responsible for themselves. And they can handle it because they have the foundation of learning a moral code, learning to love God, learning to listen to you, and learning responsibility.

That’s how discipline is like a pyramid: you start out with a base of a lot of rules and boundaries, and you have fewer and fewer and the pyramid gets narrower and narrower until you reach the top, when the rules disappear.

And the child is now ready to fly out of the nest.

That’s how it’s supposed to work in theory. What happens, though, if you don’t have a lot of boundaries when the kids are little? You give in to their temper tantrums. You don’t enforce bedtimes. You let them yell at you and disrespect you. You let them eat whatever they want for dinner, even if it’s not what you made. You let them snack constantly and then refuse to eat the yucky stuff that’s on their plate at mealtime. You buy them everything they want.

When you don’t discipline toddlers, you invert the pyramid.

You’ve given them very few rules when they’re little, but the concept of the pyramid doesn’t change. It just turns upside down.

The Pyramid Idea of Discipline: Don't Invert the Pyramid!

When you don’t stress disciplining toddlers, giving them rules and structure when they’re small, then your kids will need increasing intervention from parents as they get older.

They have not internalized self-discipline, or values, or even simple politeness. While you can get away with this when they’re small, when they’re older you’ve created a monster, because when they make bad decisions at the ages of 11, or 13, or even 16, they can get in a lot of trouble.

That’s why some parents don’t really start disciplining until the child hits the pre-teen or teen years and starts causing real trouble. They fail at school. They start drinking. They start taking drugs. Or maybe it’s not something self-destructive; it’s simply that they’ve tuned out of the family. They’re rude, they glare and barely talk to you, and they complain constantly. That’s very hard to live with from someone who is 15. You think they should be helping with dishes, or cleaning up the living room, or at least doing their homework, but for some reason they don’t. And that reason is because they never learned the importance of it earlier, and they don’t want to listen to you.

Now, this isn’t entirely true, because some children will be trying as teenagers even if they’ve been given great, consistent discipline from the time they were small children. They might just have that sort of personality. But on the whole, this is what happens.

One day, a parent wakes up and doesn’t know who this teen is, and is totally at a loss as to what to do. And so they slam down hard. They ground them. They take away TV. They take away their phones. They don’t let any friends over. They become super strict, and the child rebels even more. If you’re in that situation, Kevin Leman’s Have a New Teenager by Friday, that I reviewed here last month, can really help.

But the point is that you’ll be dealing with a pyramid regardless.

You either put in the work disciplining toddlers, when it’s easier, or you’ll have to put in the work disciplining teens, when it’s harder (with more serious consequences for bad choices).

The encouragement is that if you readers currently have small children, and you’re utterly exhausted, be assured that the work that you’re putting in now means that less work will be necessary later. Keep going. Keep at it. I know it’s tiring, but you’re saving yourself a lot of heartache later.

The whole reason that I’ve written this post, though, is that I’ve had a close up look at different parents of teens’ discipline attitudes lately, and I’ve started to feel like I’m a little alone. I do not believe that we should relax all rules and stop trying to discipline if our kids are making bad choices. We must still institute consequences for actions. But the ideal is that as teens grow, we won’t need to as much, and we’ll take a step back.

That’s why I told my oldest daughter last night that as of this summer, she no longer has any rules. She does not have a curfew. I will not wake her up in the morning to start her schoolwork. I will not make her go to bed. I will not limit her Facebook or anything. You see, as of this summer she only has one more year at home, and I believe (as Leman also says), that that final year should be free of rules, because as soon as she moves out she won’t have rules. And I would rather she get used to that while she is still under our roof than that she only experience it when she moves out.

Now she will still have to act as part of the community. She will still have to clean the bathrooms and do dinner occasionally and wash dishes, because I am not her maid. And when she lives with housemates at school she’ll have to be doing housework and dividing up the work there, too. She also will have to carry a cell phone and text or call me and tell me where she is and who she’s with and when she’s expected to be home. This isn’t because I’m her parent; that’s simple safety. When she’s living out of the house she should be doing that, too. Someone should always know where you are and who you’re with, and so that will still be in effect. But the difference is that I do the same thing. When I go out, I report in and tell them where I am, too.

I don’t think I would relax the rules like this if Rebecca were acting up, but she’s a very responsible girl, and I don’t have a lot of concerns. But part of that is because we put in so much work in those early years.

If you didn’t, you can still catch up! Read the book. But remember, a teen will experience total freedom when they do move out to go to school (if that’s where they’re heading) or to get their own apartment. It’s better that they experience a taste of that freedom when they’re with you. They’re less inclined to go all crazy then.

Other Posts on Disciplining Toddlers:

How to Stop Temper Tantrums Before they Start
The 3 D’s of Discipline
The Terrible Twos–and Making them the Terrific Twos!
When You Have Different Parenting/Discipline Styles

What do you think? Where are you on the pyramid? Let’s talk about it!


  1. I absolutely LOVE this post. In fact, it’s one of my new favorites from you :) As a mother to a 5 year old little girl, I could not agree more. It’s almost like you took my thoughts, and transformed them into words. My husband and I are both very nurturing parents, but we have our rules and we enforce them. We never ‘say’ there will be consequences, and then ‘not’ follow through. We discipline, but show endless love at the same time. We discipline, BECAUSE we love and care deeply … for her future, and for what is ultimately best for her. I often see other parents who are more relaxed and who just go with the flow ‘oh, they’re just kids’ but it usually results in us having mommy/daughter dates … and their children are talking back, hitting, not listening, throwing endless fits … and they usually always ask how in the world my daughter is so well behaved for a 5 year old. We don’t ‘spank’ her or anything … we are just firm with our rules, and always follow through with the consequences. (attitude, talking back = no TV for a day, etc.) eventually, they catch on. But you MUST enforce it and follow through … or else they have the upper hand at the small age of 5.
    Noelani recently posted…FREE November sponsor spots!My Profile

    • Thanks, Noelani! I think you hit on something I didn’t emphasize enough in my post, so let me say it here. You said “my husband and I are both very nurturing parents”, and that is so necessary. Yes, as I said, we need to discipline and have rules, but that MUST be accompanied by making a concerted effort in those early years to really spend time with your kids and have fun with them so they know you love them. It’s two sides to the same coin. Because the more they know you love them, the better behaved they will be, too. I should have said that more explicitly!

  2. I totally agree. My oldest son will be 3 in December and my youngest is 3 months today. There are so many days that I feel like a mean mommy. If my 3yr old doesn’t eat dinner when dinner is served, there are no other options. He can go to bed hungry. There is only one thing I know he won’t eat and never has, even made me sick when I was pregnant with him. But he is even branching out and trying it, just at his own pace.

    If he throws fits in the store, we leave. I hate doing this but its only happened once or twice. He gets it.

    I’ve never understood the “terrible twos or threes or fours”. As soon as he was mobile (like 9 months old), he started hearing no. Our house is not babyproofed, but our child is houseproofed. I am able to have my electronics where I want them, because he knows not to touch. Its never been an option for him.

    I guess what I am getting at is its nice to know that the hard work I am putting in now by making sure my kids listen and are polite, will pay off in the end.
    Lacey G recently posted…Halloween 2011My Profile

  3. AMEN! Love the pyramid – that’s an excellent way to explain the role of discipline, especially for some of us visual thinkers 😀 My family are a little ‘behind’ you, as far as parenting. Our boys are 10, 12, and 15, so we have further to go. Yet I’ve seen the fruit of this principle already. No, our boys aren’t perfect! And yes, the 15 year old (in particular) has some rather unpleasant moments. But seeing the larger picture? For the most part, the boys are a joy to be around.

    Yes, the early years were EXHAUSTING. One of my boys has a hearing disability, and another could be the poster child for ADHD – impulsive, loud, wiggly, physical, reactive, overstimulated… EXHAUSTING. And yes, he still struggles, but to a much, much lesser degree. The years of work are paying off in spades.

    I say this, not to brag on ourselves, but to first THANK THE LORD for the encouragement and strength to be faithful, and second, to pass on encouragement to moms with younger ones.


    As you – Shiela – said so much better, invest the time and effort when they’re young and your investment will grow. I always heard the deferred discipline called “credit card parenting”, because the debt just builds.

    1 Chronicles 28:20
    Be strong and courageous, and do the work. Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the LORD God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you until all the work… is finished.

    • Thanks, Julie! And I just want to reiterate, because I may not have said this strongly enough in the post, that if you DIDN’T do it when the kids were young, all is not lost. It’s just more difficult. So don’t beat yourself up about it; just adopt different, better strategies and move on.

      Sometimes I worry that my posts may make people feel guilty, you know? But I do love that analogy of credit cards, too. That’s another neat way of looking at it.

  4. Yes I agree too, Sheila :-)

    My oldest is 17 and in her last year of school. We have relaxed the rules in much the same way – she is required to do some household chores and such, but she has much more freedom to determine her curfew and computer time. She has proved to be (mostly!) very responsible, even blocking Facebook for herself from time to time when things get super busy with school or music.

    But as a child we worked very hard! She was strong willed and screamy when she was little! And she can still be stubborn – but I hate to think of how things could have gone had we not spent those years working so hard. And with 5 more closely following her – it was pretty intense there for a while!!

    But it pays off, with 4 teens now and 2 more coming up behind, we are thankful for the Godly advice to work hard in the early years.


    • Congratulations, Siminoz! Sounds like you’ve got a great girl. I wish my daughter would turn off Facebook a little more frequently, though… :)

  5. I’m with you on this! I have a 5 1/2 mo old, and I’ve been reading all sorts of stuff, that all says pretty much the same thing. Teach them obedience young. My question, though, is when does this start? Does fighting with me over a nap count? My peanut will through tantrums (yes, he started those at about 4 mo), but how do I deal with those? I take care of a 17 mo old little girl and its much easier to figure out with her, though there are still questions. What are reasonable expectations? (currently, naps are what all the disagreements are about between peanut and I).

    • Hi Rachael,

      We did go through the “Ferber” technique with both our kids and trained them to sleep around 3 months of age. They cried a bit for the first week and then settled in very peacefully, and were very happy babies. Yes, you let them cry, but you also reassure them that you still love them. I’d suggest that book; it really was very good. I know some people will think it’s harsh, but helping our kids learn how to sleep at regular times, without their bottles, solved so many problems for us. And then the toddler years were really peaceful, without them constantly getting out of bed and climbing into ours!

  6. I do get the idea and I love it. But if you have trouble disciplining your kids and teens you can always resort to military schools, boot camps or Christian schools (if you’re a Christian) to do what you failed in doing.

  7. I want to hug you for writing this! You have put into words my whole parenting perspective. I didn’t know anyone out there agreed with me :) Ever since my son turned 1 (5 years ago) my Mother-in-Law has been on me and saying that I’m too tough on him. Our most recent argument arose when I instructed him (and his sister) to clean their play-room before Grandmamaw came over. They had 2 hours and they still hadn’t gotten it clean when she got there. I persisted by telling them they couldn’t leave their room until they cleaned it. She nagged at me and said I expected too much from them; after all, they’re only children. I had to bite my tounge when she said that. I firmly believe that my job is to teach them while they are young. If I let them get away with not cleaning their room because they’re young at what point do we stop making excuses for them? Shall we say that they don’t have to clean their room because they’re tired, or they’ve worked hard at school all day, or mom needs to do it since I just stay at home all day? My husband and I expect our children to be responsible. My prayer is that this pays off and they grow into responsible adults. As of right now, they are 6, 4, and 4 months old and I’m starting to see some rewards. My son (6) is knows to pick up his toys, put away his shoes, pick up his dirty clothes, and many other small tasks. I still struggle with my 4 year old daughter (she’s incredibly stubborn), but she helps with tidying her room, cleaning the dishes, and folding the laundry. Obviously my 4 month old isn’t anywhere near the point of doing tasks, but I know that she’s got some good role models to look up to. I just wish more parents would take an active part in disciplining their children while they are young. Too often they let them “get away with things” because they are young. Then, when they get to teen years the parents can’t understand why their children are heathens. Thanks for your wonderful words!

  8. Thanks for this post. I realy get confused with how far I can go with this with a 2 year old. My 2 yr old boy could be pretty difficult sometimes and I must confess most times I have given up following with the consequences because I tell myself he is going to grow out of it. For a few days now we try to make him eat whatever we take for dinner but also feel bad doing that. So how much is too much for a 2 yr old

  9. This is great. We raised our kids by giving them choices and helping them feel like they had some control over their lives. They were treated with dignity and respect and as a result “discipline” came naturally. They are grown now and we still have a lot of fun together. I now teach parents of young addicts how to change their training tactics to help kids recover.

  10. Catherine says:

    I can’t wait to read this book as I just stumbled across this post and it seems to be the answer to my prayers!! We have a 2 year old ( who is going on 12!!) and one on the way. Both my husband and I try to consistently follow our set of rules, and have since he was born. He is as stubborn as we both are, and I love that about him, but it is exhausting! I’m so glad to know that 1) it’s not forever and 2) we are shaping him into the person he needs to be to succeed in life. My one question for you is this; how to you as a parent combat those, especially family members, who constantly tell you that you have to pick your battles with your child and tell you that the things your child is doing, i.e. not listening to you when you tell them not to climb on furniture, etc…is no big deal…it’s what kids do! It’s hard enough trying to constantly enforce your rules with your kids, but to have to constantly tell your family that your rules need to be followed is almost overwhelming!

  11. What about a book suggestion for disciplining a toddler? Or when to start when there young and what that looks like?

  12. Excellent post! I cannot believe how badly some children behave sometimes. Even I feel embarrassed for the parents! My 2 children are now teens, and hopefully it will go smoothly during these years.

  13. Awesome advice!

Comment Policy: Please stay positive with your comments. If your comment is rude, it gets deleted. Any comment that espouses an anti-marriage philosophy (eg. porn, adultery, abuse and the like) will be deleted. If it is critical, please make it constructive. If you are replying to another commenter, please be polite and don't assume you know everything about his or her situation. If you are constantly negative or a general troll, you will get banned. The definition of terms is left solely up to us. Sheila Wray Gregoire owns the copyright to all comments and may publish them in whatever form she sees fit. She agrees to keep any publication of comments anonymous, even if you are not anonymous on this board.


  1. […] I firmly believe that the more you discipline–or help a child learn to behave properly–up to  the age of 3 or 4, the less you have to discipline a child around ages 15-17. And it’s at 15-17 when they can […]

  2. […] what happens when we throw in the towel too early? We don’t end the Parenting Power Struggle. We simply delay it. Think of the amount of freedom that you give your kids as the shape of an upside-down pyramid. […]

  3. […] The Importance of Disciplining Toddlers: The Pyramid Idea […]

Leave a Comment


CommentLuv badge