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The Competent Parent: Logical Consequences

Welcome to a new online series on parenting advice with our expert Dr. Deborah Wood.



Dear Dr. Debbie,

While I am sure we are not perfect, we are doing our best to provide a happy environment for our 2 ½ year old daughter.   To this end, we try to pick our battles – for example bath time is now every other night.  She gets choices, she gets attention, but often she pitches a fit when we really need her cooperation.

What do you suggest for when you DO need her to mind you, and preferably right now?  Say, for example,  she takes a bucket of paint and throws it on Mommy, full well knowing that is a bad thing to do?  Or ( this hasn’t happened yet, I fear the day if it does) she takes her seat belt off and jumps up and down on the back seat of the car while in motion?  What do you do in those situations?.  Right now our current discipline will have her laugh at us, when we are trying to be serious.  We don’t feel like we are getting through to her, and need to sometimes so things do not spiral out of control.

Trying to hang in there


Dear Trying,

Sometimes we expect our children to understand safety hazards better than they do.  I observed a mother of a two-year-old tell the child to “Stay here on the sidewalk while I get the car.”  Of course the little girl followed Mommy into the busy parking lot.  Mommy, with an exasperated sigh, picked her up and carried her safely to the car.

Immediate obedience is more likely if you reserve “commands” and the threat of consequences for truly serious situations, and use humor, sweet talk, choices, and compromises the rest of the time.  But if necessary, you can help your child understand why you wanted her to do something if you follow an important but unheeded request with a “logical consequence.”


If your child doesn’t comply with a reasonable and important request, you can threaten and then carry out a consequence to help her learn the rule.  In the seatbelt example, the rule is: We buckle up to stay safe in the car each and every time we are in it.  If she unbuckles , you pull over and stop the car.  An absolutely serious tone of voice is required as you rebuckle her while telling her why.  “This keeps you safe in case we have a crash.  I love you so much and will always keep you safe.”  Shouldn’t matter where you are going – you wouldn’t jeopardize her safety over being late for any errand/ appointment/ social event.  As many times as you need to, you repeat stopping, rebuckling, and reminding her of the reason for the rule.  Consistency is essential to learning rules (think of the rule of gravity!).  If you like, you can threaten to return home (assuming that’s where the trip started) and then follow through.

Help her to list all the places she can go with you that don’t require a car.  This is probably limited.  She needs to know you are serious about the seatbelt rule for the car (and any other rule you have).  At a less tense time, perhaps snuggling on the couch after a good book, have a discussion about this safety rule and give her your heartfelt promise that you would never drive with her unbuckled.

Although a two-year-old doesn’t have a huge capacity for logic, she is beginning to connect her actions to your reactions.  You pulled over as a consequence of her unbuckling.  You have limited your excursions with her to places you can travel without a car (unless another adult is available to sit in the back seat to keep an eye on the buckle.)  Children need adults to impose rules for their health and safety and to enforce such rules with “logical” consequences.    Because young children can’t conceive of being a loose projectile in a crashing car – nor would we want them to experience this first hand – grown-ups must enforce the logical consequence: “I can’t drive you if you’re not buckled.”

If the problem perpetuates, let her experience the logical consequence of staying home when she otherwise would have gone along on a car ride with you.  “It’s hard for you to remember the rule about buckling up, so you’ll stay home to stay safe.”  Later the same day, or at least the next time you are planning an optional outing for her, suggest she is now ready to remember and follow the rule.  You can lead her in this direction with “You were so disappointed when you couldn’t come with me this morning.  I really want you to be able to go places with me in the car.  I’ll be going to (some place to do something you know she enjoys).  I know you are ready to follow the buckle up rule.”

By the way, if you suspect that her willfulness is so strong that she’s not to be trusted around an open can of paint, you shouldn’t be tempting her.   For her safety and your sanity, she should be kept away from home improvement projects.  If she can’t stay in one room of the house knowing Mommy is painting in another, the logical consequence is that Daddy takes her for a nice long walk.

Dr. Debbie

Dr. Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis.  She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum.  Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at www.drdebbiewood.com Do you have a parenting question for Dr. Debbie? Email us! editor@chesapeakefamily.com



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