*Disclaimer! I’m not perfect, my kids aren’t perfect, and I don’t employ anything I’m writing about here nearly consistently enough. But I have some amazing kids and I’ve had at least a few successes so I’d like to employ the old adage… do as I say and not (always) as I do.
Last week, we finally brought our dog, Daily, into the house. We always meant for him to be an indoor dog, but after I got pregnant I felt too miserable to do much of anything with him and outside he went. But now things are starting to settle down around here, so he’s back inside. I’ve been watching some training videos and as I’ve been walking him through the training steps, I’m struck by how much sense it makes … not just for training dogs, but for training kids, too.
Most of us understand that dogs need to be trained, at least to some extent. We take our dogs to obedience classes, or find online videos and books to learn how to train them at home. But how often do parents think of training their children? How often do parents make plans to teach them desirable behaviors, as opposed to punishing undesirable behaviors? If you were to raise a dog the way most people raise their kids, you’d end up with a spastic, aggressive dog (I know, I raised several of these before I knew any better.) I think one of the reasons there are so many reports on how damaging spanking is stems from the fact that parents who spank their children are often parents who don’t train their children. Rather than teaching a child, in a stress-free environment, the behaviors they want from their kids (training), parents correct a child after he/she has done something they don’t want them to do (punishing.)
For example, if I want to teach my child not to interrupt me while I’m on the phone, it’s going to be 1,000 times easier if I don’t wait until it’s almost lunch time and I’m on an important business call. If I want to teach my child not to throw food from his highchair, it’s going to be 1,000 times less stressful for both of us if I don’t wait until he’s throwing his snacks across the room while I’m busy trying to cook lunch or help my daughter with complicated school work. If I’ll instead take a few days to teach him how I expect him to handle his food while I’m not stressed or busy, I’m much less likely to react out of anger or frustration if my child does throw his food. Considering the fact that throwing food is fun, instead of telling him “no” or punishing him for throwing food, I could spend some time figuring out a way to make keeping food on his tray rewarding. As a wise mother once told me: it’s always best, when possible, to tell your children what to do, instead of what not to do. (And as a wise dog instructor once said: if you have to correct your dog, you’re not being creative enough.) A great example of this can be seen in the following video… a woman is teaching her dog to stay out of the road without punishing him when he does go into the road. She makes staying in his yard rewarding for the dog… with a little thought, this can be done with kids, too!
As I’ve been going through training sessions with my dog, it has occurred to me how similar dog training is to child training (and I unapologetically use the word “training” here. Not to equate my children with dogs, but even so most of us are probably a lot less stressed out by our dogs than we are by our children, and that’s probably because we’re afraid to “train” our children.) Few people ever even consider training their children. Here are some things I’ve learned from training my dog, that I think every parent would benefit by practicing with their kids. According to the “experts,” there are three phases in training:
During the “learning” phase, dogs are taken to a place that is free from distraction and taught a simple command (one at a time.) This is done entirely through rewards (ie: we lure the dog into a sit and as soon as his bottom hits the ground, he’s rewarded.) No corrections are given, we’re simply teaching the dog how to behave and rewarding correct behavior.
During the “distraction” phase, we continue teaching the same command as before, while adding distractions on an increasing level. For instance, we might take bring someone into the room while we’re telling our dog to “sit.” Having successfully achieved this, we might take him to a busy street and tell him to “sit.” Again, good behavior is rewarded.
During the “correction” phase, we teach the dog that he is required to obey, regardless of what he’s doing (or would rather be doing) at the time. The correction phase doesn’t start until we are 110% positive that the dog knows the commands we are giving him, and corrections are consistent and immediate (withholding a treat, a firm verbal “no,” etc.) and displeasing enough that the dog doesn’t ignore us but not so intense that the dog shuts down (the type of correction needed varies for every dog.) Done correctly, the correction phase is over very quickly, and results in a dog who obeys 100% of the time.
Sounds pretty simple, right? But the majority of parenting isn’t done this way – far from it! Parents wait until children do things the parent thinks they shouldn’t do, and then children are punished for it – often without even realizing it’s wrong. For instance: a child throwing a tantrum in a grocery store. Was the child ever taught how to act at the grocery? I’m not asking whether the child was told how to act at the store, I’m asking how many parents take their kids on mock grocery runs where the only objective is to train their children on how to behave in the store. Waiting until we’re trying to fill a cart on a thirty minute grocery run is not the best time to teach Little Johnny how to behave at Kroger.
What if, instead of telling Johnny how he’s expected to behave at the grocery and then taking him in at 5:00 on a Friday night, we practice at home for a few days? What if we make it a game, emptying our cabinets and playing “Grocery Day?” From there, we could take Johnny to the store on a Monday afternoon when the place is practically empty and spend five or ten minutes playing “Grocery Day” in real life. This could happen quite a few times before we attempt a long day out during a busy day.
Seriously, want to raise great kids who are well-adjusted and respectful? Learn how to train a dog! (Learning the principals behind clicker training would, I think, be especially beneficial.) As one author wrote:
“If they can teach a 9,000 pound Orca to do tricks at Sea World, we can teach our kids to take out the garbage without complaining.”
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