Friday, December 4, 2009

Parent training dog training kid training parent.

I am of two minds at the moment--a psychological limbo wherein I find my tired brain over-saturated and confused by two very important, yet very different philosophies. Both promise to stretch my mental muscle, my patience, and my capacity for love and forgiveness, both promise to increase my well-being and happiness, and both promise to improve my family life if applied correctly, but the two philosophies could not be more different. I am speaking, of course, of two books: Cesar's Way, a dog training book by Cable TV's "dog Whisperer", Cesar Millan, that I got a few years back and guiltily skimmed as we prepared to give our old dog, Shelby, away before moving to Ohio, and Raising Cain, a book about the emotional lives of boys written by two child psychologists who've spent their entire careers working with troubled boys.

Cesar's Way
constitutes a gentle rebuke to all dog owners who anthropomorphize their pets to the point showering them with misplaced sympathy and coddling or bludgeoning them anger and aggression:

"Feeling sorry” for a dog is not doing that dog a favor. It is actually hurting her chances of becoming balanced in the future. Imagine if someone “felt sorry” for you all the time. How would that make you feel about yourself? Dogs need leadership before they need love" (153).

Raising Cain is a gentle rebuke of parents who buy into the "Boys are supposed to be tough," mentality that discourages boys from expressing, understanding, and reacting in a healthy manner to their own emotions.
“Parents can model emotional connectedness and empathy. They can listen to boys’ feelings without judging them, hear their problems without dictating solutions. We have to come to grips with the fact that every boy has an inner life, that their hearts are full. Every boy is sensitive, and every boy suffers. This is a scary idea for many adults, who consciously or unconsciously, don’t want to acknowledge a boy’s emotional vulnerability…If we teach our sons to honor and value their emotional lives, if we can give boys an emotional vocabulary and the encouragement to use it, they will unclench their hearts” (20).

Since we just got a dog, and since we're having our third boy in February, these two books and their very different philosophies have been churning around in my head. It seems that some dog owners have been treating their dogs like little boys, and too many people have been treating their little boys like dogs. The result: dogs that pee on the wall of your living room and kids that throw toys across the room when you ask them to help with the dishes.

In fact, the behavior that Raising Cain warns against is not far off from the alpha male firmness combined with rewards and carefully planned affection that Cesar wants for dogs, and the unconditional love, emotional space, and nonjudgmental support Raising Cain advocates
is not too far from the behavior that Cesar suggests is tipping some dogs off balance.

So what is "natural" for the dog is not "natural" for the little boy. That seems obvious enough. But with a head full of pop psychology and no real easy answer to dealing with the daily changes in the emotional and physical needs of a little boy like Mr. Baseball, I get a little lost. Especially when, in his book about dogs, Cesar writes something like this:

"Those parents on Nanny 911—of course they love their children!—But love’s the only thing they’re giving. They’re not giving their kids exercise. They’re not giving them psychological stimulation. There are no rules."

I'm not confused by what Cesar is saying--that in some ways the needs of children (structure, consistency, a stable understanding of expectations, emotional, psychological, and intellectual stimulation) are the same as the needs of Dogs. What gets me is how easy it is, as a parent, to want to apply the rest of Cesar's philosophy to the kids--to treat them like dogs. You know--ply them with treats, put them on a proverbial "leash" in public (particularly at the grocery store when they're chasing each other down the cereal aisle screaming "fireman to the rescue!" so loud that people in the checkout lines can hear them), draw out clear and strict boundaries about where they can and cannot go, establish myself as the "Alpha male."

No matter how much I read, and pray, and think about being a good dad, there is a threshold I reach as a parent, where Mr. Baseball's daily fight about putting on clothes or his tantrum about having to help set the table or his kicking furniture and toys when he gets frustrated leave me saying things like

"Either choose to be okay with doing BLANK (insert undesirable but important activity that takes him away from whatever it is he'd rather be doing) or we'll BLANK (insert a variety of privileges that we could take away, everything from listening to books on tape to skipping story time to not having dessert)"

and that only makes him more upset and makes me feel like I'm trying to train a dog instead of raise a child. Mentally I know I should give him a little room to vent his frustration and then decide on his own that complying with the rules and order of the house is in his best interest, but the alpha male in me wants immediate results--I want him to sit when I say sit, to fetch when I say fetch--and I know that it is both unreasonable and ineffective.

But I still do it.

Not all the time. Just when that threshold gets breached, when I feel like I've been the calm and patient and active-listening parent that I need to be, or it's week 11 of the school year and putting on school clothes in the morning should, in my mind, be well-established routine, or when I call Mr. Baseball inside after playing in the backyard for an hour to come in and help clean up and complains that he "never gets time to play"--that's when this irrational alpha male part of me wants to break out and say, "Just do it!" and sometimes it does.

Those are the moments that I feel smallest, that I wish I could take back, that I wonder at this parenting thing and how God can trust me with his children. I feel bad that Mr. Baseball is the guinea pig--that every change in his emotional and physical needs is new to us--a fast moving blip on the radar that we barely have time to react to before it has completely overtaken us, knocked us off course, and left us spinning, scrambling to right the controls, to steady the ship, and to regroup enough to react in a way that is helpful and encouraging to him and maintains the order and stability in our family.

I called him this morning from work after leaving in a huff, grumpy that this parenting thing isn't easier, upset at myself for being so demanding, disappointed at the dissonance between how I know I should interact and communicate and negotiate with Mr. Baseball and how I often end up leveling him with warnings and lectures and sermons and platitudes about "being part of the team." I called him to tell him I love him, to let him know that I'm not as frustrated and disappointed by his actions as I sometimes appear, and to see if he'd managed to get out of his own chore-induced bad mood. he was laughing when he picked up the phone--all the frustration and defensiveness of early this morning washed away. He was sitting at the table doing some writing practice, getting ready to go out with Mom and his little brother. I told him I loved him. and we talked for a moment. Then he said, "I love you Daddy," and hung up the phone.

As nice as it was to hear his happy voice on the other end of the line, and for him to say that to me without any prompting, I can't help but wonder at what point my short comings as a father will no longer be so easy to forgive and forget.


SLReid said...

Joey! The fact that you think about this SHOWS that you are a great dad! I love you! --Sherri

Sarah said...

This is beautiful! I have been feeling EXACTLY the same way with my eldest daughter - and you've put into words what so many new (and, I'd wager, more experieced) parents feel! For what it's worth, I think you guys are excellent parents, but thanks for this honest real-life recollection!

Sarah said...

..I meant reflection. Good thing you're the writer ;)