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Behavior: What (and How) to

Behavior: What (and How) to “Teach” an Under-One-Year-Old

By Amalah


First off, love your column, love your advice and love your attitude.

So hoping you can help. Our 11 month old is a bright, shiny thing full of beans and love. He’s pretty awesome but there are a few things that I’m starting to wonder whether we should be teaching him not to do, and how we should go about doing that. We’re by no means expecting a little robot boy, he’s a baby still and enjoying the sensation of everything. But stuff like banging on the windows or hurling his fork across the room for the 1000th time this meal, it feels like maybe we should start guiding him away from that stuff.

I guess the question is what is it appropriate to expect to be able to teach him, and how do we best go about doing that? I found your column months back when looking for why he was screeching like a pterodactyl and your great advice about there not really being any point trying to discipline an under-2, but is there a book or something you could recommend that would help us understand what’s worth teaching him at what age and how? At the moment we use a short, sharp ‘no’ if he’s going to put himself in danger to get his attention and ask him not to do other things in a normal voice. We’re not down with discipline at this age unless theres a gentle kind way to do that.

Yours in awe,

A super-important thing to remember around this age is that his receptive language skills far outweigh his expressive language skills. In other words, he understands more of what’s coming out of your mouth than you probably realize, even though he’s probably not talking much yet, or only using limited/basic hand gestures to communicate with you.

In other, other words, ohhhhh he knows he’s not supposed to hurl that fork. But hurling that fork (and watching Mom scurry to retrieve it like it’s a human game of fetch) is FUN.

So yes, you can (and should) start laying some groundwork on what behaviors aren’t acceptable. Not through discipline, but through your words, redirection, and some very mild cause-and-effect consequences, when appropriate. Probably what you’re already doing! When he throws the fork the first time, say something in a calm, even tone like “no thank you, we do not throw forks.” Try to make eye contact so he focuses on your face and mouth, emphasize the words with a head shake, or incorporate a hand signal if he’s not looking at your face.

(I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again and again…baby sign language is a LIFESAVER at this age, when there’s the big gap between receptive and expressive language. Not only can it cut down on tantrums and frustrations for him, it’s absolutely the coolest thing to realize you are having actual two-way conversations with your baby for the first time. It’s like they suddenly become a real person! (Who would like some milk and then put on their shoes so they can to go someplace in the car!)

(For baby sign language beginners, here’s a great starter set of signs. I also highly recommend anything and everything from Signing Time if you want to go the video or flash card route.)

The second time he throws the fork, he doesn’t get it back. “No thank you. We do not throw forks. Bye bye, fork.” Not discipline, just a consequence, and a sign that you are not going to play his game anymore.

For other stuff like banging on the windows, probably best to just gently cover his hands and redirect him somewhere else. I was big on the phrase “no thank you” with my young toddlers…just seemed easier to say in that calm, even tone AND to distinguish between things that were dangerous (when I would use a loud, sharp, urgent tone of NO or STOP) and things that were just run-of-the-mill annoying or mildly destructive. (Like, say, pulling out every last plastic sandwich bag from the economy-sized box, or coloring on things that were not paper, or oh my God stop playing in the toilet water!!!)

Now look: He’s still going to do all those things, and more, many times in the next few months and even years. He’s still going to throw the fork and see how many times you’ll fetch and return it. He’s going to test limits and see exactly how far is “too far” and what kind of fun weird new face you’ll make when he does it. You’re going to tell him not to throw his fork many, many times before the game stops being fun and he moves on. But the repetition is important, as is laying the early foundations of limits and general behavior expectations. As he experiments with cause and effect, it’s not a bad thing for him to realize that occasional certain effects aren’t fun or desirable (you throw a toy, you lose the toy, you do something dangerous you’ve been told not to do, you get hurt, etc.). It’s just life.

As for recommendations for a book or other ages-and-stages resource recommendation, I actually preferred the email newsletter thingies from BabyCenter over any of the toddler development books I purchased over the years. in general can be a heaving mass of information overload (much of which is contradictory), but I found the monthly emails cherry-picked the best/most common issues and questions for each age pretty well, especially about what to expect communication and behavior wise. It was a nice “what to expect in general right now” with some tips and guidance without subscribing to a specific parenting approach or agenda. (I still get them, actually, all these years later, one for each kid!)

Published November 11, 2015. Last updated July 16, 2017.
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • metcodon

    November 11, 2015 at 12:18 pm

    I would really recommend the book Baby 411. I know it has “baby” in the title but it has a lot of great info generally on kids under 18 months. This includes information about development (“normal” and bumps along the road) as well as reasonable expectations of discipline (i.e. not much but here are some tips). I found their advice really easy follow and generally sound (and all of it comes with references which is so awesome).

    • Ciara

      November 11, 2015 at 5:03 pm

      I concur!! I also recommend the follow-up Toddler 411!

      • Erin

        November 16, 2015 at 11:08 am

        LOVE Baby and Toddler 411!

    • Kim too

      November 16, 2015 at 11:39 am

      I loved it for the medical advice, if nothing else. Having an easy to read, easy o access guide to wait and watch vs. call the doc was invaluable.

  • Susan :)

    November 11, 2015 at 1:01 pm

    Yes to baby signs!  So nice for my nieces to talk with me that way before they could talk in words. Also, I was not opposed to correcting behavior, even when they were babies. I believe it starts early!  They do understand waaaaay more than you think. If it was something dangerous, I usually did a sharp, loud “Ah!” and they’d stop whatever it was. It’s okay to say no, we don’t do that, or no touch, then redirect or distract!  In my opinion, the earlier you start the better. Then you don’t have to undo a lot of undesirable behaviors when they’re two or three. As for the ever present dropping or throwing of forks and whatnot, yeah, I never played that game. They got one chance. If they dropped/ threw a second time, they did not get it back. Saved me a lot of time and energy!  

  • Kristina

    November 11, 2015 at 1:23 pm

    In addition to Amalah’s advice, I’ve found the following blog post super helpful How to be the boss of a one year old

    • MJH

      November 11, 2015 at 1:44 pm

      Wow. I am…not into that at all. 

      • IrishCream

        November 11, 2015 at 3:12 pm

        Setting aside the moral debate, hitting your child is not effective. There is a tremendous amount of rigorous peer-reviewed on the long-term issues with corporal punishment. It is quite effective in stopping unwanted behavior in the short term, but over time, children who are hit have worse behavior and higher levels of physical aggression and anxiety. Here are a few jumping-off points if anyone wants to look into it more:

        Plus you will  have painted yourself into a corner when your child starts hitting, as every toddler does. It will be very hard to explain to an 18-month-old (or worse yet, a five-year-old lawyer-in-training) why it’s wrong for THEM to hit, but not for you.

        • Karen

          November 11, 2015 at 7:23 pm

          Yeah Kristina I thought of that post too but it’s hard to share out of context. You really have to know more about Kendra and her family and writing style to understand what she’s saying and even then her approach really isn’t for everyone. But out of context, it just doesn’t come across right. 

  • Jeanne

    November 11, 2015 at 1:39 pm

    I’m going to second the talking more. Our strategy for that stage and for the next year was mostly geared around talk. So before supper, “Today we are not going to throw forks. Mommy won’t throw forks. Daddy won’t throw forks. Baby won’t throw forks.” During supper we would praise the absence of the behaviours. It worked for lots of things but not everything.

  • Ros

    November 11, 2015 at 2:18 pm

    What has worked for us so far (our baby is 18 months old) is natural consequences.

    Natural consequence of throwing your fork on the ground: no fork. Mama or daddy will have to feed you. Natural consequence of throwing a toy: it stays there. 3 months of that and no more food-on-the-ground throwing, no more fork throwing, and the only toys that get thrown are balls (… down the stairs, ’cause she thinks it’S funny to watch them bounce.)
    Also, and this might sound counter-intuitive: she used to throw a LOT of food on the floor. Basically, as soon as she was done, she’d sweep everything off her tray. Solution: she gets a grown-up plate (yes, actual china, it didn’t work if it looked different than ours did). And we reinforce the message that if you’re done you give the plate to daddy… so now she is done and instead of throwing everything on the ground she peacefully hands us her plate. Functionally, we figured out why she was doing something (didn’t want it in front of her once she was done) and we figured out a BETTER way of giving her what she wanted (no food on her tray) that matched what we wanted (no food on the floor). It worked. 🙂

  • Traci

    November 11, 2015 at 6:13 pm

    Seconding natural consequences and adding that it is more effective to tell kids what to do than what not to do. I would actually change amalah’s phrasing to “forks are for eating.” Also focus on replacing the behavior with a more acceptable behavior “we can throw a ball after lunch.” In the case of the window I would say “windows are for looking” and model the behavior. If the banging continues provide an appropriate outlet “here’s a drum you can bang on it.”. I’m currently reading How Toddlers Thrive. It explains how and why (developmentally) they do what they do and provides a framework for how to help them. A book on positive guidance would be handy too.

  • K

    November 11, 2015 at 11:08 pm

    Love and Logic! I read it when our little one was about a year or slightly before. The gist is that you give choices (safe choices that you can live with) as often as possible, and then allow natural consequences to consistently happen. For example: throwing rocks at the playground. You might think a one year old wouldn’t get it if you said “we don’t throw rocks. If we throw rocks, we leave the playground – it’s not safe”. But do it. Do it swiftly and with no further warnings. Stay calm and repeat: “when we throw rocks we have to leave. Sad! Let’s try again later/tomorrow”. And then come back later and try again. he’ll throw a fit, and you’ll have to do it a few times, but leaving a play area when you can’t be safe/follow playtime rules is a natural consequence. Now that he’s older, consequences are just as natural. “Keep me up all night because you wouldn’t go to bed? Bummer, I’m so tired today, we won’t be able to go to the zoo.” It’s always his choice, and the consequences are never arbitrary/made up. I am never the bad guy, it’s always his call whether he wants to have fun or be bored/whatever the consequence was. We never baby proofed our house, I have never had to spank him or deal with prolonged tantrum behavior. He knows what the rules are, feels like he is in control a lot of the time (choices that I approve of – “milk or water? These socks or those?”) and I get to be a happy mom way more than a mom that nags or creates made up punishments.

  • Ina

    November 12, 2015 at 3:25 am

    Janet Lansbury’s books “No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame” and “Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting” are by far the best I have read. My son is also 11 months old. He used to scream when I tried to put him in the stroller, throw his spoon 100 times every meal etc. Now he goes into his stroller calmly and actually hands me his spoon when he is finished. He’s by no means become perfect and is still a very spirited explorer of all things dangerous, but after reading these books it’s become so much easier to deal with. I’m also calmer and more confident as a parent.

    I try to read as much as I can about different parenting styles or techniques or whatever, but I don’t actually subscribe to any particular theory, even RIE, which Janet Lansbury talks about. That said, some of the points she makes really speak to me, such as the importance of acknowledging and allowing a child’s feelings and using person to person communication, meaning saying “I don’t want you to throw the spoon” instead of “We don’t throw spoons” or “Spoons are not for throwing” in which case the child may think, we don’t but I do 🙂  

    She also emphasizes the importance of setting boundaries confidently and benevolently – like a CEO – to make the child feel secure and like someone capable is taking care of him. 

    • Chiara

      November 12, 2015 at 10:00 am

      I haven’t read the book yet, but I really like Janet’s blog, too. And she posts parent questions on her Facebook page, and links to older blog posts, which makes it worth following. 

    • Brigitte

      November 13, 2015 at 2:08 am

      I also highly recommend anything by Janet Lansbury, it’s perfect for ages 0-2.  You can browse her blog at, and my understanding is that the “No Bad Kids” book is basically a collection of her blog posts on the topic.

    • Brigitte

      November 13, 2015 at 2:24 am

      I should perhaps also add my favourite discipline phrases.

      “____ is not for you.” (Then hold their hands away, remove the object, or even pick up the child if they are having trouble letting it be.) (I might add one brief statement of explanation.  “____ could hurt you.”)

      “____ is not for eating.”

      “I won’t let you hit.  Hitting hurts.” (Hold hands, remove child, etc. as suits the situation.)

      “When you throw your fork, it shows me that you are finished eating properly.  I will put the food away.”  (Like amalah, I might give one extra chance to get it right if I wasn’t sure they understood, but once this response becomes routine you better believe they know what’s coming the first time they throw that fork.)

      I prefer to use a regular voice and regular sentences without dramatic gasps or inflection or facial expressions.  Extra sharpness is acceptable in situations of danger, of course.  I don’t like using phrases like “no thank you” if they’re not being used the same way an adult would use them when speaking to another adult, as that’s just confusing.  To me, “no thank you” expresses more of a preference and not a firm limit (when used in regular adult speech), although of course children can be trained to hear it as a firm limit if that’s how you choose to use it with them.

      Everything I’ve just said here is stuff I’ve learned from Janet’s blog, by the way.  So there’s your free sample. 🙂

  • Brigitte

    November 13, 2015 at 2:29 am

    One last thing!  My second child started talking way earlier and more intelligibly than any other child I know.  Holy crap was that in interesting window into what all/most kids that age can all understand and think about!  Amalah is right, do not underestimate what your child already understands!