It’s no wonder that there is a plethora of books on parenting; it has to be one of the most taxing and mysterious tasks there is. Dr. Spock famously reassured new parents, “Trust yourself; you know more than you think you do.” It’s too bad that he didn’t follow that up with, “Now that you’ve relaxed, get coaching.” I can’t tell you how devoutly I wish that I had spent as much time in parenting classes as I’ve spent in dog training classes. And dogs are a whole lot more straight-forward than kids.
Pluis, our trainer, frequently tells the class that our dogs show her the mistakes we’ve been making in training. She only has to watch them. When you tell your dog to come, does she run to you and rush to sit in the heel position rather than directly in front of you? Well, you’ve been too consistently following the command to come with the one to heel. Your dog’s only trying to help you by skipping the intervening step. Does your dog constantly get up when he’s in the down-stay? Why, look at you putting your hands all over him every time you go back to put him in place again! He’s got your number! He knows that if he gets up, you’ll come over and give him all the contact he could want.
There’s a handler in our class who can’t understand why his dog wanders confusedly in front of him every time he tells her to come. “Tell her what you want!” Pluis adjures him as he manhandles the dog this way and that by her neck. Pluis tries to show him: “Come!” she tells the dog, then “Sit” as she reaches Pluis’ feet. The dog performs perfectly, a look of intense relief in her liquid brown eyes. The handler tries. “Come,” he says sternly, then wordlessly hauls her around by her neck once more.
I haven’t consciously been applying the same thinking to students at school, but I have had several occasions to contemplate falling apples, trees and relative distances. Years ago, two brothers came to us with tales of appalling bullying in their middle schools. Their parents were full of stories of how badly they, too, had been treated by the school administration who refused to do anything about the bullying. The boys were singularly lacking in social skills. A good bit of the work I did with them focused on how to show that you are open to interacting with others, how to greet people, and how to engage in conversation. Ordinarily, the absence of this set of skills would lead one to suspect some spectrum disorder, Asperger’s for instance, but neither of the boys showed any other indicators. It wasn’t until one of the brothers got into a potentially serious situation by misreading a girl’s social cues that I finally learned enough to fill in the missing pieces. “My wife and I,” the father told me, “have done everything we could to isolate our boys. We’ve kept them young and innocent. We haven’t let them be exposed to anything. They never go to a party or any social event unless one of us can be there, too. Maybe,” he added in a flash of insight, “that wasn’t such a good idea.” Unfortunately, the flash flamed out. When the older son graduated from our school, the parents didn’t feel he was ready to go away to college, so he stayed home. I asked him how he felt about that. “I’m really tired of living with my parents,” he confessed. “They fight a lot. But I’m not ready to go away.” He shrugged and looked at me sheepishly. “The world’s a scary place.” It’s every parent’s instinct to protect her child, but what impels someone to over-protect to the point of incapacitation?
On the flipside, there’s a young woman who graduated this year and is off to a well-known university back East. From the moment she arrived, she was a leader. She wasn’t the valedictorian, but she was a great student because she loves to learn. She is just as likely to share a joke and a laugh with a teacher as she is with a peer. And who did she invite to prom? A former classmate she happened to run into at a political forum because “He was always so nice in eighth grade.” True to form, they had a marvelous time. She was in my advisory group and always had uncommon wisdom to share with us all. Here’s what she told me once:
“As far back as I can remember, kindergarten, maybe, whenever I had a problem with something, my mom would sit down with me and strategize. At first, she’d suggest possible courses of action, we’d decide what I would do, then I’d do it. At some point, I don’t really remember when, she stopped suggesting and started asking me what I wanted to do. Now, she’ll ask questions to help me get my thoughts together, you know. But mostly, she listens. Then she tells me she trusts me to work it out. Oh, it’s not always perfect, what I come up with,” she added, laughing, “but when I make a mistake, we talk about what I’ll do next.”
I believe in the power of mistakes. As long as it doesn’t kill you, maim you or destroy your future, a mistake has more to teach you than anything else. So I’m embracing the mistakes I made with my own kids, and dammit, I’m going to learn from them. I’m convinced that if I pull together the lessons of my mistakes with the lessons I’ve learned from life with Cleo, I can be a better person for my students. This is what I plan to practice:
- Lead with love and enthusiasm (It’s much more fun to heel with someone who’s excited than someone who’s just dragging you by the throat.)
- Follow up with humor (Someone is more likely to respond well if you tap them on the calf with your nose than if you growl at them.)
- Remember: You cannot control anything or anyone (Even the best dog is gonna bark her fool head off now and then.)
- Trust (No one really wants to be bad.)
- Have patience (Remember how long it took to learn to stand for a greeting?)