November 24, 2009

Lessons From the Dog Whisperer

I'm a huge fan of Cesar Millan, the "Dog Whisperer" of TV and literary fame, so I was thrilled to discover that some parents are using his lessons on children as well as animals.  Seem a little odd?  The heart of Millan's message is that "exercise, discipline and affection" will make for a healthy, happy dog, when paired with an owner who has "calm, assertive" energy.

The idea of wanting to follow a leader with calm, assertive energy is as true for people (adults and kids) as it is for dogs.  After all, our work environments are happier when we know what we're doing and where we stand.  I'm uncomfortable when I see a supervisor hem-hawing or failing to stop inappropriate behavior by another employee; what that says to me is that I need to take care of myself, because my boss won't do their job.  It's the same with kids; kids are unsettled when they feel like their parents are inconsistent or unsure.  If you project very nervous or active energy to a classroom (or car) full of kids, you're going to have a lot of "hyper" energy sent back to you.

By the same token, being calm and assertive with children has a few differences than with Millan's teachings for dogs.  It's ok, for example, to say "I don't know" or pause to think before answering a question; assertive does not mean controlling, aggressive, "knows everything" or "has all the answers."  Kids appreciate honesty.  You don't have to be a robot and you don't have to conceal your emotions, like anger or disappointment, from your children.  But you will have more success in day-to-day life with your kids if your general manner is calm and assertive, instead of frantic, angry, rushed, tired or depressed.

For the most part, parents and dog owners make the same mistakes with regard to Millan's mantra of "exercise, discipline and affection:"  not enough exercise and not enough discipline.  Take a look at how you deal with your child and how balanced their needs are.  It should go without saying that your child should know that your love them and that you value their strengths and accomplishments.  So tell them, every single day.

Do your kids get enough activity, playing outside or participating in sports?  If not, that may be the cause of fidgeting or procrastinating when homework time comes, or the cause of acting out in general.  If a child has too much pent up energy, they will find a way to release it.  As the adult, you need to give them a healthy way to release and refocus, not wait for them to explode.

When it comes to discipline, many, many parents and teachers are lacking.  Millan talks about giving dogs "rules, boundaries and limitations."  As adults, we have rules, boundaries and limitations built into our lives: on the road, we obey the law; we have consequences for failure at work; we have family, friends and our own consciences to answer to in our social lives.  And as parents and teachers, we must set up just such a system for kids.

Children want to know what is expected of them, and they thrive on structure and routine.  Adults do too.  I would bet that most adults have at least a morning or bedtime routine for themselves.  You do the same things in order to make sure you remember them all, and they set you up to do your best with your day or to get a good  night's sleep.  Children should have a basic structure to their day.  Like adults, they do best when they know what's coming next.

And when your child inevitably misbehaves, despite the affection, structure and exercise?  Well-thought-out discipline is key.  Poor behavior should have a consequence: time-out, removal of a privilege, grounding, etc.  A few points on discipline:

  • Let the punishment fit the crime.  If your child is usually a great student, but forgot to study for a test and got a poor grade, that is not the time to heap on heavy punishment; she's probably feeling badly and beating herself up about it already.  On the other hand, if your child does poorly on his third test in a row after avoiding studying by playing video games again, a strong action needs to be taken. For such a repeat offender, I would suggest no video games until test scores improve.  
  • Think, act and follow through.  Think carefully before assigning a consequence, and then follow through.  If you don't follow through, your child will only have learned that you don't mean what you say.  If you ground your sixteen year-old for a month for having a party at your house, don't wimp out two weeks into the month when your anger has faded.  If you genuinely think you've been too harsh, admit your error, but don't just pretend you forgot about the punishment altogether.  
  • Every child is different.  Some kids do really well with a behavior chart or calendar with stickers to keep track of their good and bad days.  Many classrooms have a ranked color gradient or card system in place where a child's behavior through the day culminates in a set number of minutes lost from recess.  The problem for some children is that losing minutes of recess at the end of the day cannot focus them over a period of seven hours.  They need a more immediate consequence for their actions.  Experiment to find what works with your children or students.  

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