Teach Your Babies Well

The following was originally posted in thread on Gentle Christian Mothers called, “…And I’m the Strict One!“and is a follow up to my previous post, Teach Your Children Well.

At 4 months, what you want to be doing is starting the phase of ‘discipline’ that I call “show and tell” — it’s not a phase where you expect the baby to *do* anything at all. I mean that! And I know it doesn’t make sense to say “start discipline” and “the baby doesn’t do anything” when you are coming from a punitive mindset.

What “show and tell” means is that you are building the vocabulary for whatever you want him/her to be able to do without thinking twice once s/he is a toddler. You build vocabulary by saying a word and simultaneously doing that thing to the baby.

For example, when you say “Up” as you pick a baby up, that’s ‘show and tell’ — but of course, “Up” is not an instruction you want your toddler to follow later, so it’s not a good example of how ‘show and tell’ is a good start to good discipline. It’s just an example of the way that people naturally know that ‘show and tell’ is how you teach stuff to babies. It’s how they learn. That’s why it’s the method you choose when you teach everything, including when you teach the vocabulary you want them to grasp for following instructions. It’s a game. It’s no big deal.

At this stage you have TONS of time. Start by thinking and trying out what words you plan to use as your primary ‘words of instruction’. Once you’ve got them figured out, you need to *stop* using them as ordinary parts of chit-chat and *only* use them when you are going to be ‘show and tell’-ing. Your instruction words should be short and sweet. When possible, they should say what ‘is happening / what to do’ instead of ‘what not to do’. Try not to start with more than 6 to 10 instruction words. Select them carefully and always use them identically. (Many of these instruction words are going to sound like dog commands or military drill commands. That’s OK… it’s basically the same idea.)

This is training for you in pre-GOYB parenting. If you are not going to *do* anything, it’s best not to *say* an instruction at all — otherwise you confuse the child about the instructions that sometimes ‘happens’ and sometimes nothing happens. It waters down your ability to assert authority by spoken words. You are trying to build the bedrock of discipline which is Mommy’s instructions always come true. Emphasis on the *ALWAYS* part — you are trying to make them accept that ‘fact’ as a functional part of their scientific model of their universe. It can be hard to backtrack and make that happen for an older child, but it’s easy when you start with a baby, beginning with ‘show and tell’ teaching.

AND I MEAN teaching not training, not ‘expecting’ — no consiquences, nothing to interrupt the flow of your loving days of fun with baby. Nothing like that. Just like saying “Up!” when you pick him/her up, try things like…

Saying “Still.” (or) “Be still.” — while gently and briefly holding the baby still.

Saying “Hands off.” (or) “Open hand.” (or) “Release.” — while gently prying little hands off of things, or while hovering little hands where they can’t quite reach a thing they would like to grasp.

Saying “Give.” (or) “Give to Mama.” — while taking or trading with toys.

Saying “Careful.” (or) “Careful <relevant body part>.” — while using the child’s body parts in gentle, slow or careful ways.

— when mobile / crawling —

Saying “Back Away” (or) “Come Away” (or) “Redirect” — while pulling the baby back from their destination of interest.

{{{Note: if you have a place/location/object where the baby consistently isn’t going to be allowed, define that place/location/object clearly, give it a name, then add that to the instruction word, such as, “Come away; fish tank.” This is called adding a specifier (which should be consistent) to a known instruction word. You can also use specifiers with above instruction words for example, “Hands off; laptop.” Pause after the instruction word so that the baby gets it clearly, the extra word(s) are just for clarity, to help the child assemble the idea that some places/objects/locations are just not worth trying again. Adding which ‘body part’ to the instruction ‘careful’ is also a specifier, and so is ‘to Mama’ or ‘to someone else’. The ‘instruction word’ is the core of what you say.}}}

Saying “Stay with me.” — while physically keeping a baby right near you, lifting them back when they take a single scooch away.

Saying “Stop.” — while physically halting their motion-to-somewhere.

Saying “Come.” — while standing in one place, then going to get the toddler and bringing him/her to the place where you had been standing.

I want to be super clear: your baby will *NOT* follow your instructions. Don’t expect it. If you can’t do this without expecting it, don’t do it at all.

This is very simple. Nobody is following instructions but you. You are saying the ‘instruction’ for the baby’s *information* while using the baby’s body to demonstrate what the instruction means in bodily-physics. Both you and the baby are simply getting used to the terms and vocabulary. Nothing is expected of the baby. The parent does both the “telling” and the “showing” for the entirety of this very long phase (probably a year). It’s an at of kindness, a very long introduction to the theory that ‘in this universe Mama’s instructions always actually happen’. In my experience, sinking that concept in deeply matters a lot for long-term GBD.

So, pick your favorite ‘words of instruction’ and start by choosing not to use them in everyday language. Instead, if you are going to do something, just say to the baby what it is you are showing them how to do.


  1. bolt. on July 4, 2012 at 7:03 am

    Thanks for your thoughts! I’m glad to hear I’m not the only parent who has stumbled into this method of ‘show and tell’ for babies and toddlers. It really is true that using this method tends to result in kids as young as toddler-hood who don’t even think twice before doing what the words mean — since that’s what those words have meant their whole lives.

    I know a lot of people think “discipline” means being firm with a child, but the word has a lot more to do with ‘discipleship’ than any other idea. It’s about using all sorts of teaching methods to help our children grow up and learn good things. A person who uses good ‘discipline’ (meaning: teaching good things in kind ways) will probably not have too many opportunities to need to use ‘discipline’ the other way (meaning: being firm about misbehaviour).

    Sometimes I get so used to using ‘discipline’ the accurate way (meaning: teaching good things in kind and effective ways) that I forget that most people don’t “hear” it that way.

  2. MrPopularSentiment on July 4, 2012 at 6:06 am

    We sort of did this in a totally non-planned and non-systematic way. Part of it was necessity. “Give” and “not in your mouth” have been verbal staples, of course. The only other one I can think of is “gentle” (usually used while baby was interacting with the cat – we’d hold his hand and gently pet the cat while repeating “gentle, gentle”).

    For us, it was just a natural extension of interacting with our baby, not a form of “discipline.” But it’s worked very well. At 16 months, he will spit out whatever he’s put into his mouth when told that it doesn’t go in his mouth, and he’s quite happy (most of the time) to hand stuff over (as long as there’s some give-and-take! He gets to ask for stuff from us too!). And he’s just amazing with the cat. He does get overexcited sometimes and either pull fur or hit the cat, but a calm reminder to be “gentle” will usually get him to give the cat a hug and a kiss.

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