Dear Miss SmartyPants,
We need some help determining how best to discipline the 18-month-old. My wife has turned into more of a disciplinarian than I am, which is probably pretty natural since she's a stay-at-home mom, so she has more opportunities to discipline him and is more easily aggravated by things he does. Lately he's been copping a real attitude with her -- not wanting to hug her, grunts and walks away if she tries to give affection. He doesn't do that with me. She thinks I need to step up and become more of a disciplinarian, to balance things out. I think she needs to cool down and not yell at him every time he decides to throw some Cheerios on the floor. Who's right?
Regarding the discipline question, both of you should talk to a pro, informally is fine (pediatrician, day care workers, veteran parents are all good for this). But here's the short answer in the meantime. An 18-month-old doesn't "cop an attitude," he just acts like a normal toddler.
A kid that age is starting to assert himself, establish some independence and find his own identity, and the person who bears the brunt of that is the closest adult to him, in this case, his mommy. That's the person from whom he needs to wrest some control; he's resisting her rules and affection because he has to, in a developmental sense. So, she needs to stop yelling and just set calm limits when it's important to limit him, and ease off on things that don't matter. Shrug off his "attitude," for example, and just let him not hug when he doesn't want to. When he throws Cheerios, just say no once, and if he ignores it, say you're taking them away and then take them away. Then quickly move on to something else.
An 18-month-old falls into the toddler age group, so you can expect abundant energy and curiosity from your little one. His curiosity might get him into trouble on occasion, and he may misbehave if he becomes tired or bored. Since discipline is more effective when it is age appropriate and easier for the child to understand, it is imperative to learn which methods will work for you.
In general, give your child a firm "no" when you spot him doing something wrong. You could follow this up with a very brief explanation: "That could hurt you" or "It's not time to play with that right now." Please know that "Because I said so" is a perfectly acceptable explanation. At 18 months, your child may just be old enough to understand a reason for the discipline, but if not, you really don't owe him an explanation for your expectations.
It is important to redirect your child to another activity immediately. It will sort of snap him out of his commitment to whatever he was doing that needed to be corrected. His attention span is relatively short at this age, so redirection is usually an effective way to distract him.
Remove him from the situation entirely, if necessary. Time-outs may be confusing for a child at this age, but an effective "time-out" can be the parent ignoring the child for a couple minutes. He will learn that his misbehavior did not gain him any attention. Praise him when he behaves well, so he learns he doesn't need to misbehave to get your attention. Be consistent from day to day. Do not spank - it is neither necessary nor effective. Do not discipline for things that are an accident or part of his normal development, such as wetting the bed.
So ... Set limits without yelling, enforce limits without yelling, divert attention to something else, inhale, exhale.