Category Archives: Boys

Why Dog Parents are Superior

Don’t get me wrong – and this is not the best opening line for my first blog here in months – but I learned much about how to parent my children from what I knew about training dogs.

I was reminded of this today as I read Pamela Druckerman’s Wall Street Journal article, Why French Parents are Superior.  Much of what Druckerman says in her article rings true to me – but with the caveat that I strongly disagree with her need to draw the line as “French people do this” and “Americans do this.”

As with so many categorical comparisons (girls vs. boys, race vs. race, north vs. south, rich vs. poor vs. middle class), her points are valid, but made weak by the lack of French vs. American accuracy in her details.  For one, having traveled with children in France (and Italy and Scotland and Ireland and Mexico…), I’ll tell you: most French people did not take their children to restaurants, which left ours in the minority to the point that one restaurant in Paris bought a high chair to accommodate our group, it was so rare for a child to be brought there.  And there is certainly a difference between a tired, traveling toddler in foreign surroundings being dragged to a restaurant for almost every meal, and a local child having an occasional meal out.  Our kids were habituated to restaurants but, on those international trips, it wasn’t uncommon for one to balk as we approached yet another restaurant after a long day.

Druckerman’s assertion that American parents are helicopter parents has been said before – but more of the current college and job-seeking generation than current toddlers, and of parents who helicopter-parent, not all Americans.  Likewise, the level of patience in children or interest in filling cupcake forms or quantity of toys in the living room (all examples from her argument) is a child by child, parent by parent, family by family issue.  As is her statistic of how many Americans love or dread parenting.

As a writer, I’m sure Druckerman was reaching for examples to make her point.  In fairness, the article is printed as a foil to the Wall Street Journal’s January 8, 2011 Tiger Mom article that had already asserted “Why Chinese Moms are Superior.”  In that context, Druckerman’s categorical argument was really responding in kind.  As with level-headed responses to the Chinese tiger mom’s book, any parents – Chinese, American, French or otherwise – can find value in reading about different cultural approaches to effective parenting.

France, China, tiger… I don’t get it – what’s this have to do with dog training?

One of Druckerman’s examples praised the calm parenting of a French mother, who explained discipline as educating the child, rather than punishing.

In fact, this is not unique.  Leonard Sax explains at some length in his book Boys Adrift (highly recommended reading) that the etymology of the word discipline comes from disciple, which means “teacher” not “policeman.” The intention of discipline for all parents should be educating a child, not punishing.

In that sense, Druckerman’s French friend may not have been so much a better parent as an effective translator.

It was interesting for Druckerman to give the example of children interrupting adults who are speaking, as most of us would agree that it is a rude habit.  We may notice when we do it and feel apologetic; we feel devalued when we are interrupted by a friend.  I’d be curious, culture-wide, if all American parents work to tamp it out of children’s habits.

Within my own community of American parents and within the school where I teach, we do calmly approach such things as children interrupting adults as an opportunity to “educate” the child, rather than punish, much like the example Druckerman gave.

When I am teaching and need to finish a concept without interruption, I have gone so far as telling the child who is waving his hand to share an idea, “Write a note so you won’t forget what you want to say.”  Sure, I want them to learn manners and patience — but I also want to encourage their responsibility to contribute to issues in their community, and to learn to manage their ideas and memory.  I try to teach children to respect where the urge to interrupt comes from (fear of forgetting their thought), and to manage that fear, not just shut up.

Still no dog training.

Of the French mother who asked her child to wait while adults were talking, Druckerman says, “I was struck both by how sweetly Delphine said it and by how certain she seemed that Pauline would obey her.”

It’s the second half of that: the certainty her request would be obeyed.

Asked once, then she moves on.

That’s good dog training.

Dog trainers tell people with new puppies, Say clearly what you want them to do.  Then trust they will do it.  If you believe they will listen, the dog hears that in you.  They don’t doubt.  They don’t add room for options.  She told me to sit.  I guess I’m going to sit.

My dog Gracie is an amazing dog.  Sweet.  Intelligent.  Calm.  Has let kittens sleep in her food bowl, kids lie on her, hamsters balance on her head.  But she’s the sixth boxer our family has had over the past fifty years.  They dash.  We have lever door handles in our house, and that good dog Gracie can pop a door and be off in seconds.

What do we feel when our dogs or kids do something we don’t want them to do, like the dog dashing off just as I need to take the kids to school?  Fear, anxiety, embarrassment, frustration.

Call the dog while fearing she will keep running, and she’ll keep running.  Walk after the dog and she’ll think we’re off on a great game of chase.  She has my attention.

What dog training taught me: tell her to sit and don’t walk toward her until she obeys.  Or call her once, then turn my back on her and walk in the direction I expect her to go.

Give the command and then – in both words and action – move on as if you consider it a done-deal.

What I got from dog training that I might not have gotten from parenting advice is the combination of words and action.  Dogs respond blatantly to body language, forcing us to become aware of silent conflicts in what we say to them.  If I ask my dog to come, but walk toward her, I’ve told her I don’t think she’ll come.  If I ask her to get back but then push her off, I’ve told her she doesn’t have to listen to words and only has to move if shoved.  If I ask my kids to go to bed, and ask it and ask it and ask it but they don’t actually have to go to bed until I stand up and turn out the lights to go to bed myself, I’ve told them to ignore my words (my boys’ late night reluctance is their parallel to Gracie’s dashes).

Dog training asks owners to be clear and consistent. Ask them to do things you know them capable of doing. Repeat the request only once. Expect action so confidently you could turn your back and walk away.

That simple physical stance of back turning fascinates me.  In dog lingo, if my back is turned to my dog, she is instantly curious to see what I’m up to.  If I face her, then she is what I’m up to.  If I tell her to do something then move on, I’ve taken away any curiosity over whether or not she will do it. It’s a done deal.  All curiosity has moved elsewhere.

Oddly enough, as much as I value eye contact with my boys, it works with kids too.  A back can’t be argued with.  A back isn’t watching to see if you will listen.  A back says, Oop, she really means it, we better get going. I do use it that literally sometimes with my boys, although more often it is metaphorical: I move on in tone of voice, the focus of my attention, the next point in conversation, the lack of repeating and waiting.

Yes, clearly, dog parents are far and above superior to human parents.

Right.  What other culture will be next in the Journal’s series?

American, Chinese, French, Dog, British, Canadian or Italian (the last three being nationality of the dog trainers I learned from), we all have effective approaches with children, and those that are less effective.  For me, what’s key is not just keeping calamari and ripped napkins off the floor in those brief years they are toddlers, but keeping eye on what will make them good citizens and companions in the longer years ahead.

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In the meantime

Having started a new teaching job this past fall, sometimes making notes on 25 essays a night in addition to life with my own little monkeys at home, there’s been no time for posts here this semester.  In all I’ve experienced during an intense few months, so many ideas are collecting to share.  I’ll allow time for reflection, then look forward to posting.  In the meantime, seems like a moment to really let pictures “say a thousand words”!

copyright Elissa Thompson; no use without written permission

Negotiating to get two sno cones with the last 3 carnival tickets, while explosions cloud the sunset from a World War II dogfight reenactment on the runway behind them. (copyright protected; no use without written permission)

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Wild Boys

I am a younger sister to an older brother who, to this day, I consider to be one of the coolest people on earth.

As kids, we were close in age (as close as possible without being twins) and seemingly understood each other well.  That is, I agreed his GI Joes were awesome, we cracked up hysterically over the same cartoons and both went wide-eyed over Batman or 007’s cool gear.  With family, we camped and fished and sailed and skied and rode horses and swam together.    So, fully ignoring his complete lack of interest in my dolls or anything pink, I was well into adulthood still assuming boys and girls – at least those of a common spirit – were pretty much the same.

For the scope of this blog, we’ll gloss over the first several years of marriage when I thought men and women thought the same, or those first pregnant months when I thought his feelings on becoming a father or experiencing pregnancy would be identical to mine.

Point is, having wanted to hang out with my cool brother, I grew up with a bit of Kid Sister Syndrome.  Having sometimes felt left out, I was personally vested in wanting to believe boys and girls think and develop alike.  My mother would push books at me like Men Are From Mars Women Are From Venus, and I’d be willing to accept the differences, but resist the book, wanting instead to focus on the ways we connect.

In early parenthood, it was easy to continue in this belief.  By chance, my first son’s friends were all girls until he began school.  Like my childhood memory of  my brother, my son’s toddlerhood girlfriends shared his humor, his antics, his playground acrobatics, and even toys equalized a bit at that age.

It was when my girlfriends and I began to seek out parenting books to guide us in our first behavior issues that I remember seeing a whole shelf of books addressing how to raise boys.

I laugh at myself remembering this: it actually offended me.

I was conditioned to hours spent with a sweet three year-old who picked flowers for me, whose favorite colors were orange and red, with a sunny sweet little smile.  The boys pictured on the covers of those books looked like thugs.  Another kind of boy, I thought – maybe not that clearly, but maybe I was thinking those were books for people raising tough kids: playground bullies, gang members.

We all shudder a little (don’t we?) as new parents – when our babies are still babies and we can’t yet connect their tenderness to the sturdier children they will become.  I was still proud of his Beatrix-Potterish baby bedroom then.  I could still remember our horror the first time he was bitten by a mosquito.

He was maybe five when I started to get glimmers of the boy he needed to grow into.

Somewhere along the line I read the July 2007 article in Time magazine, The Myth About Boys.  The boys in the article were bare-chested in cut off shorts, swung from ropes suspended from trees to plunge into a mountain pond.  They threw rocks.  They were covered in mud.  It was a summer camp designed to let them do just that.  Not because these were mud-rock-tree-rope boys, but because the camp (and the author) suggested boys need this kind of outlet for expression.

I might have looked from the article to my sweet son, sitting in his cheerful red and blue bedroom beneath the rosy poster of Babar the elephant flying a red biplane, my son cozily snuggling his pet rabbit.  It might have been a hmmm… moment – one of those times something strikes inside you, as if a tap on the shoulder to your inner being, and gets filed away for later as “that’s intriguing.”

And it might have struck me again halfway through kindergarten, when he was sent home with a discipline chart from his teacher.  A paper sheet inside a manila envelope that went back and forth between school and home, to motivate him to sit still in his chair while working and not be distracted by the computer centers or the children building with blocks or the quirky boy who liked to pretend to be a table, the preposterousness of which sent my son into peals of laughter that did not help him focus on arranging his cut-out words to be pasted as a sentence.

Somewhere in that year, I might have uttered hmmm once again – this time with a different insight than before.  Boys are different.  Boys have special needs – that need to be honored.

This isn’t a post that will give conclusions to that line of thinking.  It is one that observes when it started.

Understanding boys – my boys, all boys, in all their surprisingly complex wonder – is a theme I come back to often.  I was shocked to realize then, in that year when he was five, how little I understood.  How could I not have understood?  My brother and I were practically twins.  He is someone whose tastes and hobbies I’d happily share.  My father and I share common sense of humor.  I love the business sense of the men in my family.  My very first best friend, whose friendship affected what I looked for in every male relationship after that, was a boy.  I had boys as best friends in middle school, high school, college, as an adult.  I love soldiers and James Bond and cars (ok, so hockey and hunting things, not so much).  How could I not understand boys?

But I didn’t.

And I love that this single aspect of parenting has made me stretch so much.

I should say that, more than the Time article, I give credit to a single book I came across that kindergarten year (having bought it from the shelf of thug-books, but not read it until, in a serendipitous moment, I discovered it in my driver door pocket at the exact moment I needed it):  Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys.

And I leave it at that, for now – as an observation, an aha and confession of a gulf I crossed – knowing that it’s a theme I will come back to as time goes by.

Oh, and worth noting – it is from this I drew inspiration in designing the header for this site: my boys, being wild boys.  For some reason it gives me pride to see it in them.

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