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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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Filed under Boys, parenting lessons from unexpected sources, passed down to me