One of my favorite TV shows is ‘Dog Whisperer’ on National Geographic Channel, featuring the celebrated dog behavior specialist, Cesar Millan. His common-sense approach to controlling the conduct of dogs works unfailingly, time after time. Interestingly, in every episode it quickly becomes obvious that the focus is not entirely on the dog. Indeed, the difficulty invariably lies with the attitude and approach of the dog’s owner. Mr. Millan himself says it best during the opening credits: ‘I rehabilitate dogs; I train people.’
I can’t help but draw a parallel between the predictable behavior of our canine friends and the behavior of small children. Both seek to please and to be noticed. Both come into this world as virtual ‘blank slates’ armed only with instinct and ready to be influenced by their elders and their surroundings. Both eagerly react to tone-of-voice, reward and punishment; modeling their actions and habits (good AND bad) on those who care for them. Of course, children continue to mature past this point, whereas ‘man’s best friend’ remains at that stage of development for its entire life.
Besides being a dog expert, the amazing thing about Cesar Millan is how well he understands people. He recognizes that many of us have dogs because we want something to love. That’s fine, of course, but if that love interferes with what the dog naturally requires, then it’s another story. As he states on his website (www.cesarmillaninc.com), ‘Dogs are animals, and they respond to calm, assertive leadership—not emotional arguments or negotiations.’ Wow! How many parents of young kids would do well to remember that advice?
Unlike dogs, we expect children to develop beyond the programming of childhood and advance to the conceptual sophistication and independence of adulthood. Though human beings function best in societies, we are individuals and need a strong sense of self in order to flourish. But in early childhood, kids require guidance and leadership. This doesn’t rule out being nice, but it often means saying ‘no’ and being firm; telling the young person how it is and expecting him or her to deal with it.
Young children can’t yet figure out for themselves why it’s necessary to be quiet in public places, or why they can’t run up and interrupt or touch strangers, or why they shouldn’t blurt out whatever pops into their heads. They need someone to take the lead and say, ‘That’s wrong,’ and hold them responsible for their mistakes. Part of being a leader means setting limits and boundaries. If you fail to provide consistent and sensible leadership, you get confusion, anger, and lots of tears. In the case of Mr. Millan and his dogs, you get a good television show with lots of barking and snarling.
Young kids are hungry for knowledge and want someone to take the lead. The famous physician and educator Maria Montessori said that children have an ‘absorbent mind’ from birth to around age 6, possessing limitless motivation to achieve competence and to perfect skills and understanding. To that end, childhood should be neither a democracy nor a dictatorship. The child is too young to have an equal vote on everything, but, at the same time, he or she has a mind, and the mind must be lovingly inspired and trained.
If you overlook love in favor of setting limits, you’ll alienate the child and possibly crush the potential for confidence and self-esteem. On the other hand, if you overlook limits and boundaries in favor of making the child comfortable and happy all the time, you’ll crush the child’s ability to grow up mentally. This is the mistake that people on Cesar Millan’s show make with their dogs. They shower ‘unconditional love’ on them, which the dogs interpret as weakness and submission. The dogs then naturally assume the dominant role, becoming nasty and difficult. Mr. Millan comes in and fixes the problem fairly quickly, because dogs are less complex than human beings. But it doesn’t work that way with kids. By the time you see the consequences of ‘over-loving’ a child, he or she has grown biologically—but not emotionally—into a young adult who must now fix him- or herself.
Children start out as happy and open to learning. Inconsistencies on the part of adults can short-circuit the process. Granted, once they become young adults they can do more messing up on their own, but very young children thrive on consistent and loving leadership.
Mr. Millan emphasizes that the establishment of boundaries does not ‘hurt the dog’s feelings’ or make it feel unloved. Canines are ‘wired’ to please and to follow their leader, so making ‘right and wrong’ clear and easy to understand makes the dog more content and secure. The same applies to kids: How can a child be happy if he or she is being scolded and yelled at all the time? If your child isn’t well behaved, don’t immediately default to verbal or physical punishment. First consider your own clarity and consistency (or lack thereof).
Parenting is a hard job, and there’s always room for improvement. Setting boundaries and establishing consequences not only make for a happy, secure child, but also a responsible and productive adult.