17 August 2020

Throw out everything you know about parenting, it's time to learn from dog-training manuals

| Elka Wood
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Man holding toddler who is patting white horse over a gate.

Teaching toddlers can be hard work, but there’s lessons to be learnt from simple commands we give to dogs. Photo: Ashley South.

As a parent or caregiver, what’s in your toolbox? What tactics do you use when you need to get across important information to your kids, or stop them doing something? Are there things you wish your kids would do more, or not do at all?

Modern parents don’t have enough tools at their disposal – so much so that my husband and I often joke that we should just follow the advice of dog-training manuals.

Let’s start with this gem from dog-training site AWL: “Dogs are not ethical beings; they do not know what is right and wrong – they only know what is favourable to do. This is why reward-based training methods work so well.”

The same could be said of toddlers – those loveable, passionate, irrational little humans!

Parenting has changed dramatically in the past 50 years. These changes have been positive for parents and kids. Smacking and other forms of physical threat are now less socially acceptable, making way for a more intuitive, collaborative style of parenting, which really works when you have a baby, but falls down fast as babies turn into toddlers and kids.

In my early 20s, I house-sat a lot – gigs that included looking after other people’s dogs. I remember one particularly rambunctious Blue Heeler who would take off into the bush or along the beach and didn’t answer to her name.

All I could do was call and hope she’d return. I remember thinking this was unsustainable – what if she ran onto the road?

Years later, with a similarly untrained toddler on my hands, I had the same feeling. After our tottering son ran out onto the road, coming to an impressive skid in front of a ute tyre, I realised we had to train him so he at least answered to ‘come’ and ‘stop’.

For safety – and our sanity – we need to train our kids to some extent. If there’s something you wish your child would do, such as playing independently or taking their plate up to the sink, you can train them to do it.

But there is huge social pressure not to appear as though we are being harsh with our children, or limiting them too much, which is why every day I see parents resorting to begging, wheedling, bribing and cajoling kids into doing everyday tasks such as getting dressed, going to bed or picking up after themselves.

I’ve been there, believe me.

It’s like we think a three-year-old will look up and say, “Oh, you’re right mum, it is pretty cold today and you look like you’ve had a hard morning already so I’ll put on my jumper without whining.”

It’s as though we’re supposed to be so likeable and nice that our kids will decide to help us out off their own backs. Sometimes they will. But it’s not a reliable parenting tool.

We parents sometimes get confused between situations that genuinely warrant our emotional support, such as starting at a new daycare, and routine tasks that can, and should, be simple, like putting on shoes in the morning.

If you find you are having a daily battle with your kids about daily tasks like eating, bedtime or getting dressed, it’s time for a rejig.

My husband, who has done a lot of the work to train our kids, reckons three times is all it takes to create a new habit, but you’ll have to hold very firm for those three times and weather the storm of protests.

Unfortunately, there will be screaming.

In dog-training language: “You can mould or change behaviour by rewarding the behaviour you want and ignoring –not rewarding or acknowledging – or managing the behaviour you wish to discourage or change.”

It sounds very obvious, but if we respond to behaviours that make our lives harder by letting our kids get what they want, we’ll get a repeat of those behaviours. If you’re still seeing the behaviour you don’t like, it means you’ve accidentally rewarded that behaviour.

This means that when we say, “It’s time to leave the playground,” we must be ready to make that happen or our kids will learn that ignoring us and running away gets them more playground time.

When it’s hard and you want to give up, remember the perseverance of the orangutan below, from one of my favourite clips. Everyone who has cared for a toddler can relate to this exasperated mother as she calmly, physically reinforces the boundary over and over again.

If she could speak, you know she’d be yelling, “Come!”

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This article makes me a bit sad.
There are other ways.

Below is a post from The Libertarian Homeschooler on FB, it appear on my feed the day after I read your article. This examples is with chores but it also applies to leaving the park or going somewhere. It’s about prioritising the relationship with your children.

Chores. Not required. Can confirm.

Our children were never given chores. I was told so many times that I would regret it and they would be entitled and they wouldn’t learn how to maintain a home or do laundry or iron pants and I would ruin them and blah blah blah. One is almost twenty and the other is almost sixteen so the verdict is in. Chores are totally optional and you don’t have to assign chores and it won’t wreck your kids and you don’t have to have that fight unless you’re real invested in having conflict with your kids over chores.

No one in our home has ever heard the words, “You need to do your chores.” We maintain our home and run our errands and take care of our dog and look after the garden together because we know how nice it is to have a tidy home and a pleasant garden and good meals and a dog that’s cared for and we enjoy one another’s company as we do these things. No one hates chores or thinks of them as drudgery.

When our sons were little they always saw my husband and me working in the yard or around the house and they knew it would be nice to spend time with him or me so they joined us and worked with us. We washed windows together and scrubbed the back porch together and planted tomatoes together and sorted laundry together and changed the oil together and replaced brake pads together and fixed the string trimmer together. Things just got done because it was nice to be together and we were never in so much of a hurry that we couldn’t slow down to be kind to a curious child.

Here’s the rub. Here’s the part that I struggled with because it required self disciplined. It took LONGER to get things done. We had to be PATIENT. As parents it was a hassle to discipline ourselves to slow down and help our children become capable. Every. Single. Day. We had to be kind. We had to be cheerful and watch them struggle and fumble when we just wanted to get the freaking work done already. We had to keep our hands off the work while our children learned to do the work. We had to show self control for this to work. Every day. And sometimes we were impatient and grouchy and we couldn’t do it but most days we did and it worked. We had the time to do it this way, so we did. My husband literally worked four jobs so we could homeschool but he still had the time to be patient with his children.

This morning when the older one and I came back from our walk the younger one was returning from his walk and said matter-of-factly, “I’m going to blow off the driveway.” No one suggested it to him. No one asked him. He just knows it needs doing so he does it. If he sees my bed isn’t made by mid morning, he’ll come make it because he knows I like it made and I’ve been too busy to do it. I have come home to a child vacuuming out my closet. People join me in the kitchen when I’m cooking and just start handing me ingredients out of the fridge and setting the table. Our older son takes our younger son to practices and classes and helps him with clothes shopping. They do garden projects together without our suggesting it or managing it. They just do things. In childhood they learned what a well-run home looked like and now they just do what needs to be done to have a well-run home.

They often needed money in order to buy themselves toys and extra things that their father and I would not purchase for them so they asked for paid work. They were earning money and buying their own stuff. from the time they could toddle around. They are both known for their work ethic. But that’s another topic for another day.

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