Pushing Younger Brother: Does Three-Year-Old Know Better?

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Hello Jane,

I have read your books Positive Discipline and Positive Discipline for Preschoolers — I think it is a great approach.

My three year old son is constantly pushing my 19-month-old — how can I use positive discipline to nip the behavior in the bud? Should I use positive time-outs? I think he is old enough to understand what he is doing is wrong but he does not seem to listen when I talk to him about it — I really do not want this behavior to carry over into the classroom — can you help me?



Hi Kristin,

Thanks for asking. I'm receiving so many emails with a similar theme, so hopefully others will find this helpful.

First I want to explain why your three-year-old doesn't understand that what he is doing wrong. I'm going to explain this in several different ways—first in a very back door way by asking a question.

Would you allow your son to go to the park by himself even though you think he understands that it is wrong to cross a busy street and that he should not play on the equipment on any way that isn't safe? Of course not. Why? Because he hasn't developed enough maturity and judgment to REALLY know right from wrong. His brain has not developed enough for this. The Piaget demonstrations below helps us understand this concept.

Piaget Excerpt for Positive Discipline for Child Care Providers by Jane Nelsen and Cheryl Erwin

Caregivers who have studied child development know that the intellectual capabilities of young children have not developed to the point where they can think like adults, yet many adults act as though they should. Forcing a young child to “Say you are sorry” is an excellent example. Thinking children understand “no” the way adults think they do, is another example.

Piaget Demonstration


Jean Piaget was one of the pioneers in understanding the cognitive development of children. He devised these demonstrations to help adults understand how children’s thinking ability differs from their own.

This example demonstrates thinking abilities identified by Piaget. When we understand that perceiving, interpreting, and comprehending an event are so markedly different for young children, our expectations as adults alter. The meaning children attach to their experiences does not match the meaning adults attach to the same experiences.

Now for what to do:

  1. Supervise, supervise, supervise. Just as you can't allow a child to go to the park by himself, don't expect him to control his emotions and his frustrations.
  2. Don't scold him and comfort the younger child. (If you do, you are training the younger to become a victim who will soon learn how to get special attention.) Instead, take the pusher on your lap and validate his feelings. "You must be feeling upset, sad, mad, or whatever." It is likely that he will then be willing to help you help the younger child feel better too by having him or her join you on your lap.
  3. Another possibility is to just take them both on your lap and ignore the pushing. I know this sounds like rewarding the misbehavior, but not when you understand human behavior and that a misbehaving child is a discouraged child. Encouragement eliminates the misbehavior.
  4. Or, separate them before the frustration escalates--treating them the same.


I hope one of these ideas helps.

Jane Nelsen

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