D.L. Nolte, 81; Wrote Poem on Raising Kids

Times Staff Writer

Dorothy Law Nolte, whose poem crafted on deadline for a Torrance newspaper in 1954 became -- without her knowledge -- a child-rearing anthem that parents posted on refrigerators around the world, has died. She was 81.

Nolte, a family life educator, died Sunday of cancer at her home in Rancho Santa Margarita, said her daughter, Lisa Mulvania.

“Children Learn What They Live,” originally written to fill Nolte’s weekly family advice column in the now-defunct Torrance Herald, has been reprinted in 30 languages and probably appeared more than a few times in “Dear Abby.”


Until Nolte decided to claim ownership of the poem by basing a 1998 book on it, she never earned a dime from the work often credited to “anonymous.” She also hadn’t realized it was so revered.

“I simply wrote it and put it out there, where it has apparently moved through the world on its own momentum,” Nolte told The Times this year.

When she discovered in 1972 that a company that made baby-nutrition products was distributing millions of copies of the poem to new parents, Nolte decided to copyright the work. She let the company continue to use it for free.

The book, “Children Learn What They Live,” devotes a chapter to each line of the poem and is filled with examples of positive teaching. The book has been reprinted in 19 countries and 18 languages.

“The book gave her ownership of her own poem and philosophy, and it gave her a platform,” said Rachel Harris, her co-author.

“Teenagers Learn What They Live” followed in 2002 in a similar format. The first chapter is titled “If teenagers live with pressure, they learn to be stressed.”

“Dorothy had this unfettered wisdom,” said Margot Herrera, Nolte’s editor at Workman, which published the books.

“She also had a real genuine warmth you could feel through a phone line,” said Herrera, who once spotted the poem on a refrigerator in Guatemala.

The poem “profoundly touched” Crown Prince Naruhito of Japan, who discovered it in a Swedish textbook and announced that he planned to raise his daughter by its principles.

In Japan, Nolte’s first book is a bestseller, and she often traveled there to lecture on parenting. She made her last trip in July.

She was born Dorothy Louise McDaniel on Jan. 12, 1924, in Los Angeles, the only child of Cyrus, an electrician, and his wife, Olga.

As a teenage hospital volunteer, she found she liked helping people.

Married with two children, Nolte trained as a family counselor in the early 1950s and constantly reinvented her career. She held parenting classes, founded a preschool, became a childbirth-education instructor, studied the stress-relieving technique known as Rolfing and called herself “a movement awareness specialist.”

After her first marriage to Durwood Law ended in divorce, she married Claude Nolte in 1959. They met in a handwriting-analysis class and remained together until his death in 1988.

“She did a wonderful job as a mother,” her daughter said. “She truly tried to live up to what the poem says.”

Over the years, Nolte bowed to changing times and tweaked the work, changing “a child” to “children” so that each “he” could be a “they.”

Six years ago, she finally realized a tangible benefit from the poem. With profits from the book it inspired, she bought a house in Rancho Santa Margarita.

In addition to her daughter Lisa, Nolte is survived by another daughter, two sons, eight grandchildren, six great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild.

A memorial service will begin at 1 p.m. Friday at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, 429 Cypress Drive, Laguna Beach. Instead of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the American Cancer Society.


From “Children Learn What They Live”:

If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.

If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.

If children live with fear, they learn to be apprehensive.

If children live with pity, they learn to feel sorry for themselves.

If children live with ridicule, they learn to feel shy.

If children live with jealousy, they learn to feel envy.

If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty.

If children live with encouragement, they learn confidence.

If children live with tolerance, they learn patience.

-- Dorothy Law Nolte