In very small children behavior must be trained before beliefs. This is almost counter-intuitive, because adults learn in the opposite direction.
You can train your small child to act properly before they are capable of deeply understanding why.
For instance, a 7-9 month old child can easily be trained to NOT throw her food off her plate or the high chair. You will not be able to explain and give moral reasons to the child. But you can help her clearly understand that the act of dumping her food in the floor will result in immediate consequences.
What kind of consequences? The only kind of correction that a small toddler can generally learn from involves some degree of pain. I’m not talking about being harsh with your kid. However, it is important to understand one of the major ways children learn during the early stages.
How many times does your toddler have to get too close to the wood burning stove to learn to not touch it again? Once or maybe twice, and the lesson is learned. They will even begin to preach to you about the stove, in one word sentences: “Hot. Hot.”
How did your child learn about the stove? By your patient explanation of the laws of thermodynamics? No. Rather, because pain was immediately and consistently involved.
A gentle swat to the back of your child’s hand with a flat plastic spatula will provide appropriate pain to get their attention. It doesn’t bruise or break the skin and stings for only a few seconds. But it immediately gets the child’s attention. This is not punishment for immoral behavior, but simply training them about what is expected of them. Just think about it, your toddler learns from consequences all day long in dozens of ways, whether you are involved or not! Gravity is already using consequences to train the child 24/7!
When did you last hear of someone accusing gravity of child abuse? But look at the bumps and bruises that gravity inflicts as it consistently expects your child to submit to its rules! And I’m not even advocating bruising or bumps.
You can keep mopping up your toddler’s food messes three times a day for the next couple of years. Or you can spend a few minutes each day for the next several days being firm in your training and be largely done with the food throwing.
By the way, don’t forget to reward your child for proper behavior! Each time they submit to your expectations and reform their culinary habits, be careful to praise them and affirm them for doing the right thing!
Of course outward behavior is not our ultimate goal. But it’s all we can really accomplish for the first 2-3 years. That is, until the child is old enough to really begin to think and reason morally. That’s when the approach to training really must begin to shift.
More next time.