Monday, March 10, 2008

Flipper and Shamu as Parenting Models

I'm a bit lost in the midst of some new parenting and relationship philosophies I keep reading and hearing about. Last week, while waiting in the car before another job interview which I was again too early for, I listened to Amy Sutherland, author of 'What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage,' talk about how exotic animal trainers had taught her how to have a more peaceful and cooperative-based marriage. How she no longer became embroiled in her husband's fits over lost keys by either escalating the situation with heroic attempts at find the forever lost keys, or getting annoyed at his constantly losing his keys and getting angry about it. I found it interesting that she was able to apply the same method of tossing a mackerel to a dolphin to her husband and that it worked. But when I went back to the transcripts of the interview, the following tripped me up:

"In the end, it was I, "the trainer", who did all the changing, and, as it turned out, for the better."

Yesterday, I opened the business section of the Boulder Daily Camera and read Liz Ryan's column, something I usually do on a Monday morning over my second cup of coffee. I expected to get her usual pithy career advice, which these days I cannot seem to get enough of. Instead, she wrote about how to treat your employees (and children) as if they are dogs, using similar methods of immediate positive responses and a series of rewards, aka treats.

Quite frankly, I am baffled.

While I don't pretend that my parenting method of steam pouring out of my ears and my face turning red when my kids ignore me, or even better, have a full blown conversation while I am trying to talk to them, is the right answer, what I want to know is this? What is our relational responsibility? Are we just turning our children, employees and spouses into well -behaved retrievers (which in the case of spousal units may not be all that bad an idea), or are we encouraging the art of self-regulation which sometimes comes from pointing out behavior, actions and choices that could have been different?

I grew up with very clear consequences. If I, or my brothers, behaved in a way that was out of line, the consequence was my mother's temper. And you know what? It worked. I didn't enjoy her anger, I was afraid of her anger. I wanted to be with the other mother who was fun and loving. So I changed my behavior accordingly. Good behavior, nice mother. Bad behavior, angry mother. Seems pretty simple. My parents didn't have to roll out responsibility charts, good behavior coupons or any of the other magic bullets our generation seems to over-rely on. It was very clear in my childhood house what our responsibilities were, they were appropriate for our age and intelligence and we understood that it was our role as a member of the family to abide by them. Sure we rebelled, sure we talked back, but in the end, my parents ended up raising three really responsible children who have grown up to be responsible adults and parents of our own children.

Maybe I am missing something, and if I am, I'd love someone to fill me in on how I can bring more peace to my family, more respect and responsibility. Just don't tell me to treat my kids like my dog and my dog like my kids. I'm a human mother with human children - and a firm believer in evolution, which most often happens due to negative situations that need to be adapted to. Being cold is a negative thing, at least it is for me. Adapting to being cold by learning to make fire is a positive that results out of a negative. Same thing for raising children. Living in a messy house is a bad thing. Adapting to the mess is to learn to clean up after oneself, a hugely valuable tool to have as one moves through life. According to the current model of thought, I can do any one, or all, of three things when confronted with endless amounts of toys, games and art projects in every corner of my too-small home.
1. Ignore the mess - Wrong answer. As I grow older and closer to my menopausal self, disorder has a detrimental impact on my nervous system. It makes me physically ill. And remarkably pissy because I don't believe I should have to live in other people's mess. I left NYC for that reason.

2. Encourage with rewards. I hate this method because it does nothing to encourage doing something because it is the right thing to do and assumes my children, spouse and employees are not intelligent or conscious enough to do something just for the sake of doing it. I want to teach my kids to be self-responsible people, not just doing things because there is a lollipop dangling in front of their noses.

3. Praise the effort. I have the least amount of difficulty with this one because it is free and feels good. But if the effort of getting them to act in a responsible manner makes me insane, then the praise defeats the purpose.
In the course of the interview I listened to in the car before my job intervew (I told you I got there early!), the only person who made any sense was a caller from Colorado who is a horse trainer. She spoke of how she has worked gently with horses and with at risk teens for 25 years and how her approach of a gentle, but firm rein on the horse seems to work well with kids. I kind of liked that. Not too tight, not too loose. And the high sensitivity of horses seems to go along with that same level of sensitivity that runs rampant in our house. And besides, the girls are really into horses these days...
If any parents are out there, and you need to be a parent to respond - no sidelining aunts, uncles, or otherwise well-intentioned by essentially unqualified folks - please let me know if raising your children as if they are a pack of dogs or a school of dolphins works for your household, I'd love to know more.

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