A mother once commented to me (after I suggested using this method) that she would never, ever ignore her child and that she thought it was cruel. I explained to her that I wasn't for a moment suggesting that she ignore her toddler. In fact, this method requires some stealth -- yet consistent -- observation in order to work. What you want to ignore is your toddler's behavior. And it's not just any behavior, either. It's only those behaviors that are made worse by your attention, reinforced by it or those done with the sole intent of getting a reaction from you.
Dealing with Infrequent Behaviors and "Toddler See, Toddler Do"
For example, you stub your toe and say, "Damn it." Your toddler immediately repeats you. If your child's swearing is not a normal occurrence, let it go. It probably won't happen again unless you make a big deal about it (unless, of course, you regularly use this type of language in front of your toddler which is a different matter completely). Some parents find success in the toddler years ignoring behavior like this every time, while others find that a time comes when these words aren't acts of innocent, accidental repeating. Then they have to step in and make clear that the use of these words are not acceptable to you.
Handling Disputes Between Siblings
Another example is when siblings are arguing but no one is getting hurt and it's over something small. You should resist the urge to get involved as long as they aren't coming to blows. Let them work it out and gain some practice with their social and problem solving skills. In their eyes, you aren't paying attention to what's going on, so they can work it out more independently and based on rules that siblings establish on their own. But really, you should be paying close attention to what's going on (without their knowledge) so that you can intervene if things get out of hand.
Tackling Temper Tantrums
One of the best places to use this method is during a toddler's temper tantrum. These fits will quickly end when your toddler finds you are no longer paying attention or trying to enter into a negotiation. If your toddler is in a safe place where her tantrum won't be bothering innocent bystanders, just let her have the tantrum (and thus, express the emotions she's experiencing) but don't get involved.
Depending on the reason for the tantrum, you might offer a few words to explain your stance: "I know you want to wear flip-flops, but it's snowy outside so you have to wear warm shoes. Come see me when you're feel better and are ready to get dressed," or "I know you don't like it when you have to take turns, but sharing toys with your brother is a nice thing to do for him." Sometimes it helps to give your toddler some words to match what she's feeling, but don't give too much. Keep it short and then go about your business as if you are not paying any attention to her. Do not continue to egg her on or lecture. Just let it go. The less involved you are, the quicker the tantrum will be over. Think of your continued attention as adding fuel to an already raging fire.
Discouraging Unintentionally Hurtful Words or Name Calling
There are many times when toddlers say things out of anger or frustration that really cut to the quick. "I hate you, Mommy," or "You're stupid," for example, can come across as pretty hurtful words. This is another one of those situations where I would choose to ignore the behavior. Toddlers don't have the same filters that older children have (and I do not recommend the same method for older children). Things slip out of their mouths before their brains have a chance to stop them.
By not giving your child a reaction or engaging in a squabble, you're pretty much ensuring that this tactic will stay out of your child's arsenal. After all, it didn't work out for her. If, however, you get in a huff and reciprocate with something like, "Well, you can just go to your room and hate me then," or "Well I think you're being a brat," then it's going to dawn on your toddler that what she did got a big reaction and is something she could try again some day with similar results.
Know When to Use Ignoring and When Not To Use It
It's tough to remain unemotional and refrain from getting right on top of every undesired behavior our toddlers exhibit. It's important that we do just that, though, so that our toddlers know what is important to us and when they should be following orders without question. If you treat every discipline situation with your complete attention and intense emotion, it's going to be hard for your toddler to figure out what really matters. Ignoring is for those behaviors that fall low on the scale of importance (yet usually high on the scale of annoyance). Save your energy for the higher priority behaviors that you should never ignore like running in the street, putting foreign objects in the mouth and hurting pets, property or people.
As in most parenting situations, there is no one-size-fits-all method of toddler discipline. The more discipline tools you have at your disposal the better. Parents may find that the more they rely on one single method, the less effective that method becomes. When you use ignoring, pay close attention to your child's reaction. Be as consistent as possible, but remain flexible if you find that ignoring isn't working any longer. You might want to try one of these other toddler discipline techniques instead.