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Love and Logic in the Early Years

By Foster W. Cline, M.D.

Parents often ask how soon they can start using Love and Logic principles. Since Love and Logic is built on a foundation of consequences, Love and Logic starts as soon as the child can understand them.

This generally happens when a child starts throwing the bottle off the high chair for Mom to pick up. Generally, the sequence goes something like this:

  1. The child accidentally drops something from the high chair.
  2. Mom picks it up.
  3. The child accidentally drops something again; with a sigh, Mom picks it up.
  4. The child knocks something off on purpose and Mom says, “Keep it on your tray, Susan,” picks it up, and gives it back.
  5. The child throws the object off the tray and Mom says, “Susan, stop it!”

Now the Rant, Rave, and Rescue routines start. And kids love that. Any child would like to play his parents like an electric train: “Now I’m gonna run ’em around the track. Now I’m gonna make ’em jump the track ... Now I’ll blow their horn.” What fun!

When an infant is old enough to know a behavior bugs his mom, and purposely does it, it’s time to start Love and Logic. In this case, Mom should keep her mouth closed when she picks up the bottle. She should be noisy with happiness when the child is eating, keeps something from falling, reaches out for more, etc.

Parents who are noisiest when things go wrong have endless difficulty. If the bottle is purposely thrown a second time, Mom smiles, gives the baby a kiss, says “All done,” and takes the baby out of the high chair. The meal is over.

During the first four months of life, the rule on how to handle a baby is simple. Do anything you can to keep the baby happy. Snuggle, hold the baby close, have lots of eye contact, touch.

But if the parent keeps this same rule through the first twelve months of life—“I’ll do anything I can to keep the baby happy”—you can bet that this mother will be run ragged by a demanding and obnoxious toddler.

The only way a toddler learns to treat other people as if they are important, and subsequently treat himself as important, is through the early interaction in which a mom, by her behavior, says, “Kiddo, I love you and I’m important, too.”

One common mistake that often starts early is telling a child what to do but not expecting her to really do it. I've seen a lot of moms who tell their children what to do before the children understand English! By the time the children do understand English, they already have learned that what comes out of their mother’s mouth has nothing to do with expectations of behavior.

Let’s look at two mothers talking to their children as they eat in the high chair at eight months:

CYNTHIA: “Sandy, open up! Wider. Now eat all this. No, don’t spit it out. I said no, don’t spit. You need to eat your peas. They’re good for you. Now don’t turn your head. Open up ...”

TRACY: “Sandy ... oh, you keep your mouth closed, don’t you? Wow, you turned your head so fast, I almost fed your cheek! Are you saying ‘no’? I bet you are. You hate those peas, don’t you? I bet you do. Well, maybe we’ll try them another day. I think you might like some applesauce. Yes, you do, you little pumpkin ...”

Notice that Cynthia’s talk was mainly orders that could never be followed by an eight-month-old. By the time her child understands English, she already knows the commands are meaningless! On the other hand, Tracy chatters to her baby, but doesn't tell her what she has to do.

I remember once, I kiddingly asked a young mom why she didn't just tell her child to eat nicely. She took my silly question seriously, and gave the correct response. “Oh, Foster, I can’t tell this baby what to do, because if I ever tell my child what to do, he’ll have to do it! And this baby is too young to learn that yet.”

I thought to myself, “This young mom has actually got it! Good for her!”

The Love and Logic tenet of allowing consequences to fall on the child comes into its own after the child is walking. At that point, kids can get themselves into all sorts of trouble.

Love and Logic parents protect their children so serious harm will not occur. On the other hand, whenever possible they allow their children to suffer the consequences of poor decisions.

When a thirteen or fourteen-month-old toddler begins climbing stairs and has a rough time balancing on padded stair steps, he may have trouble mastering his new skills and locomotion. Moms can handle it in all sorts of ways:

  • Ignore the child.
  • Request: “Don’t climb up and down those stairs, Troy, you’ll fall.”
  • Command: “Come over here, Troy, and stand by me.”
  • Whine: “Troy, please don’t.”
  • Become frustrated and make it even more fun for the child: “I asked you to stop, now I’m not going to ask again. You stop it right now!”

A Love and Logic parent, on the other hand, thinks before saying anything (and after a while, one doesn't even have to think, it comes naturally): “Is he likely to hurt himself badly if he falls?”

If yes, “Will he stop if I tell him to?” If yes, ask him to please come off the steps. If no, go without talking and pick him up.

If no (he won’t hurt himself badly), “Will he learn from this experience?” Not Troy! (He may be a special needs child.) Ask him to stop if he would, pick him up if not.

But if he’ll probably learn to be more careful, the Love and Logic parent says, “Troy, Honey, if you continue, there could be a big boom-boom. There could be an ouchee” (or something to this effect).

We actually hope Troy falls, is not hurt badly, and thinks, “Mom said this might happen. I’d better listen to my mom next time, because she’s right!”

When Troy falls, his mother doesn't say, “Didn't I warn you about that?!” but hugs him and commiserates, “Oh that’s too bad, Honey. I bet you learned something today.”

Generally, toddlers learn their mothers are in control around two items:

  1. “Don’t touch.”
  2. You need to go sit in your room” (or “on that chair”—said while pointing) “until you can decide to act differently” (or “until the timer goes bing” or “until I tell you to get up”).

On these two things—don’t touch and don’t move—the toddler must learn, during the second year of life, that his mother means business. He must respond to those requests. And a few times, with some children, the mom has to show that she does have the power.

These days, it almost seems un-American or certainly politically incorrect for a parent to show a child that the parent really does have the power. But this is essential during the second year of life, and can always be carried out in a way that engenders respect and obedience rather than fear and servitude.

In summary, for a toddler to be happy, she must have a happy mom who takes loving care of herself by meaning what she says, and saying what she means. That way, the child develops respect for her mother and eventually internalizes that into self-respect.

People who are really successful implementing this skill purchased Parenting for Success


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©Foster W. Cline, M.D.
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