Raising children is a creative endeavor, an art rather than a science.
- Bruno Bettelheim
I had a parent a few weeks ago ask me if I knew how to train kids. I find the question funny both because I hear that a lot, and because there really isn’t much difference between raising kids and raising dogs. Neither are (fully) domesticated, both emit strange odors, and each are a joy to come home to, regardless of what kind of mischief they’ve gotten into in the past few hours. To answer the parent’s question, I sent her this article from a few years back. Eric and River are currently 12 & 10, but still amazing, wonderful kids.
I dragged my kids (Eric, 9 and River, 7) yesterday to Jo-Ann’s. That’s right up there on the “fun-o-meter” as getting vaccinations for them. I spent about 20 minutes trying to find what it was that I needed. They stuck right by me. As they passed in front of someone standing in an aisle, they politely said, “Excuse me”. As we left, the cashier wished me a happy holiday. I wished her the same thing. My children chimed in with “Have a great day!”. They followed me out to the car, with Eric automatically taking River’s hand to help her across the parking lot. I put on their favorite song in the car, to which the both said, “Thank you” as soon as the first few notes became recognizable.
Magic? DNA jackpot? Nope. Repetition, repetition, repetition. My children know what good manners are and are able to execute them because of a couple of factors.
- I set them up for success. River has problems behaving if she hasn’t had enough protein. Eric can become overwhelmed in crowds. Both are very hyper and need outlets for their energy. If I take River to the store right before lunch after she’s been on the computer all morning, well, then, it’s my fault if she “misbehaves”, isn’t it? I know the parameters within which she’s capable of behaving. If I drag her outside that area, how is she supposed to behave? It’s like taking a car off the road and into a lake, and then wondering why it isn’t working properly.
- I give a negative when necessary. I don’t like people being treated in a dismissive fashion, be it a waitress, cashier or any other individual, for that matter. I want my children to have the same mind-set. That person behind the counter isn’t a robot, they are a human, and worthy of good manners. Sometimes when I’d be completing a transaction, my children’s minds would float off. The clerk would wish me a good day, and I’d thank them and wish them a pleasant day as well. My children would sometimes forget to reply in kind. ”Excuse me?”, I would say to them, giving them an opportunity to fix their omission. They usually give the appropriate response at that point. Sometimes a bit more negative is necessary. The other day, both kids were being little wretches in the car. They had been set up for success, as I described above, but they started bickering in the car. I reminded them twice that this behavior was unacceptable. They started again. They each lost use of their computers for two days as a result. No, I don’t like doing that to them, but my job as a parent isn’t to always like what I do: my job is to parent. Just as I don’t enjoy taking my kids to the doctor for vaccinations and causing them (temporary) discomfort, it’s for the greater good, so I yuck it up and do it anyway.
- I praise/reward behavior that I want. How much does a word of praise cost you? Nothing. When my children passed in front of the person in the aisle at Jo-Ann’s and used good manners, I complimented them on their manners. When we got to the car, I put on their favorite song as a tiny reward for their behavior in
purgatoryJo-Ann’s. I do expect good manners from them, but manners can become linked with a positive. In their minds, being well-behaved can get them anything from a word of praise (often) to a trip for ice-cream (less often, but still feasible). Manners are good because when used, something good usually happens.
Pretty soon my kids were on auto-pilot. They can fly through most situations without prompts from me, navigating the complexities of manners quite nicely. Until the day I die, I will still compliment them on their manners whenever presented the opportunity to do so. Again, what does a kind word cost you? Nothing.
So you’re probably wondering, When does this article start to talk about dogs? Isn’t that why I’m here? Who’s to say I haven’t been talking about our canine companions the whole time? Raising dogs and kids, to some degree, isn’t much different.
- I set them up for success. Cody is a 9-month old Labradoodle.Labradoodle (n.) – Latin for perpetual motion. See also: Hyperactivity. Frivolity.
Cody is an exceptionally sweet, kind, and loving animal. But at this young age, he has a very distinct set of circumstances that need to be adhered to to attain good behavior. For example, right now Cody is contentedly sleeping on the floor by my feet as I work on my computer. This didn’t just happen. I knew I needed to get some work done today, so Cody got an extra does of the PAW Method. I gave him his Activity when we went for an extra long walk while wearing his backpack. We then handled his Work needs by working on some new tricks with him and then feeding him through his enrichment feeder. He is set up for success now.
- I give a negative when necessary. I’m ready to work, but Cody starts asking me a lot of questions:
Can I play with the cat? No. Can I throw my ball around? No. Can I play with the cat? No.
I will continue to answer his questions as he asks them. The first time he asks me about the cat, I use gentle negative body language from my seated position. The next time he asks, I get up and “claim” the cat with my body, using much stronger body language. Cody’s response? Okay! Got it…so that’s a “no” on the cat then, right?
- I praise/reward behavior that I want. Cody grabs a chew toy and plops down by my feet. That’s a couple different positives I need to address there: he’s calmed himself down, and he’s redirected himself in an appropriate manner (the chew toy). I give him a few seconds to “settle in” to this behavior, and then I gently start scratching his head. He doubles down on the chew toy, so I up my ante and start to give him some very gentle very softly-spoken praise (I want him calm, so riling him up would be my bad). He continues along the righteous path. I stop petting him so I can start working, but every few minutes give him a word of gentle praise. Pretty soon he drops his chew toy and puts his head down. He’s ready to sleep. I whip out the big guns: a single Cheerio. Cody is in the process of learning what’s acceptable behavior. He needs to have his positive behaviors marked with a pretty strong positive. That’s how he learns what we want from him. Catching the moment. I try to catch as many of his moments as I can, which means a lot of Touch, Talk, Treat. He’d get sick on so many larger treats, so I use Cheerios. Eventually, I’ll start to wean off the treats and focus on touch and talk. But for now, he’s still learning.
It’s a process. I expect mistakes (mostly from me). It’s difficult, but oh so rewarding. I don’t expect perfection; that’s only at the end of the rainbow. What you’re working for is much more precious than perfection: you’re working towards being a family. That’s even better than perfection.
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