January 23, 2007

Parenting and The Dog Whisperer

I happen to be a big fan of the "Dog Whisperer" on the National Geographic channel. I watch this show every time it is on (when I can remember to look for it) and think that Cesar Millan has some really interesting ideas on rehabilitating dogs (and training humans!) I think his three-fold approach of rules, boundaries and limitations (also exercise, discipline and then love) is excellent and works well for dogs, cats and humans!!

The other night there was an episode where Cesar was helping a family who had a beagle that howled all the time. I thought it was interesting because I personally love beagles but know they are "known" for their howling. [We do not have any dogs in our home, just a cat now. I had dogs growing up but have always been more of a cat person. I love dogs and think I am one of those people whom dogs find interesting. I meet people and their dogs always seem to find me. I love this show, nonetheless, and do practice some "cat whispering" when my beloved 16yo starts crying incessantly! Does it work? Yes, it does!]

Anyway, to the point...Cesar said something in that episode that I thought was very good and relates to this discussion on parenting styles. In a nutshell, he told the family that the problem with their dog howling was the result one or more things: one, the dog was dominant and trying to be pack leader; two, the dog was obsessive and howling was the out-working of this behavior; or three, the dog was just being a beagle When he said point three, I laughed so hard because this very thing I said when the trailer came on!! "It is normal for a beagle to howl -- that is WHAT THEY ARE SUPPOSED TO DO!" As the show progressed, Cesar showed the family that their dog was simply doing what he was created to do -- find things (in this case, other dogs) and then point them out to the pack leader by howling!

Well, the thought crossed my mind that this little truth really is valuable advice for parents of children and teens. I reminds me of what it says in Proverbs 22:6:

"Train up a child in the way he should go [and in keeping with his individual gift or bent], and when he is old he will not depart from it."

Children and beagles are sort of the same thing -- they are both created with individual bends and gifts and as such they need to be loved and accepted for their uniqueness and their contribution to the pack (the family). If we believe that we are training our children according to their individual gift or bent, then we must be paying very close attention to them (observing their bent). We cannot successfully parent them successfully from afar nor can we parent globally with a one size fits all mentality. No, we must parent according to each child's needs and specific bent and that means we really have to get to know our child (what is natural and what is artificial). IMHO, we cannot always change the natural (those things that are in keeping with God's design), but we can change the artificial (those things that are learned).

I know that in my case I have had to learn this lesson the hard way. My son is highly sensitive and as such I have had to learn not to "crush" him. He can easily be crushed and I have had to figure out how to set rules, boundaries and limitations that take into consideration his uniqueness. I was much more of a disciplinarian when my son was little, but that was because he had a tendency to do things that could hurt him (like sticking things in the light socket). As he has matured, I see his natural bend more clearly. I see where I can bend him and where he will break. I want to help him achieve his true giftedness but I cannot force him too hard or else he will shut down and give up. It is a give-take process and needs to be done gently, not with pressure.

I was sharing something with another family not long ago and I said that if we stop and consider the fact that our children are young for a very short amount of time and that they will be adults for the majority of their life -- shouldn't our parenting strategy be modified for the long-term result and not just the 18-20 years we have them under our roofs? I know many families that have inadvertantly squashed all hoped of friendship and life out of their relationship with their teens. There is little hope of lasting relationship and their teens are chomping at the bit to leave home and leave their parents -- and do not want to look back. How sad for both -- this is not God's design for family and it is not the way things are supposed to turn out. I hear so many stories of adults who never see their parents and have no desire to form relationships with them (and they are Christians).

For me, I am more concerned about the relationship I will have with my son when he is 40, then the relationship I have with him now (though it is precious all the same). I want to be a part of my son's grown-up life, to be able to have fellowship and conversation and friendship with him. To me, the very thought of not sharing in my son's adult life is crushing to me. As such, I want to develop that friendship now, but also make sure that I am allowing him the freedom to blossom and grow as God leads him.

I think to do that means that I have to do a couple things:

1) I have to pay attention to my child, really close attention. I need to be there and listen, of course, but I also need to look for signs of stress, frustration, self-defeating behaviors, mental stability. I have to really look at him and "know" him. I think by getting to know your child -- you are doing something God-honoring and highly valuable in His sight. You are recognizing and appreciating God's design and His purpose and plan. Just as you study and observe a flower or butterfly, you are giving praise to Him as creator when you study and observe your children.

2) I have to parent with gentleness and not with short-term results in mind. If I want to have that long-term relationship with my son, then I must do what is in his best interest now. That may mean correction or it may simply mean listening to him and giving him the freedom to express himself. I must create an environment in our home where there is no failure, no wrong, no right -- a safe place where he can learn how to be a grown-up without all the peer pressure and nastiness of the world.

3) I have to recognize as he moves through the various stages of development and act accordingly. Responsibility begets more responsibility; leadership is praised; model behavior is championed. Life is hardest during the teen years and it is difficult to understand all the biological changes, emotional changes, and pyschological changes. Parents need to be accutely aware that so much of what teens face is internal and that while not always appropriate, some behavior is the result of this internal struggle to become an adult.

I believe very strongly in setting rules, boundaries and limitations for my son, always have and always will. Habit training is fundamental and sets everything in motion. Good habits will help steer a proper course, but the parent must be willing to go the distance with their child and consider the final outcome (raising healthy and happy adults) as most important.

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