I laugh all the time at the ways in which I use animal training techniques with my kid. One of my most successful tricks is getting him to “station” on his fuzzy blanket when it’s time to give up all of his pre-sleep antics (like tunneling through the blankets and carrying a lamp around and investigating the shadows). It’s a relief when there’s a clear way for me to ask him what to do!
I didn’t grow up experiencing positive strategies so much, nor do I witness a lot of examples around me. So, this has been a creative process of applying good learning science to life. And yes, there are times when we are left scratching our head…or worse, when we perpetuate old patterns that aren’t functional. But, nobody said we have to get it perfect, and each of these mis-takes can be treated as information that we need to adjust and find a better plan.
There was a pivotal day where my philosophy was put to the test. My toddler did not want to go in the car and I think I ended picked him up and put him in the car without his agreement (I don’t remember those details, but we were not on a “good foot”). He was totally resistant to letting me buckle him into the car seat. I thought about just forcing him down and snapping the buckles and getting on with things, but did not go that route. So, I left him in the back while we drove 100ft to go let our ducks out. That done, it was time to go. He was completely resistant, in that way that I heard a toddler can be.
My biggest reservation about forcing him into the chair and strapping him down was that he would learn that this is how the world works. Supposedly, we develop MOST of our views and understanding of the world during these very young years. I did not want to teach him coercion as a strategy or have him be on the receiving end of that force, learning the small can be overpowered and insulting him as an individual. I come from a pretty firm upbringing with a mom with a short fuse (which I don’t like to admit possessing, as well). But, I also don’t think the strategy of being an ineffective doormat is functional either.
So, what to do, right? I started off by first just sitting in the backseat with him while I ate my breakfast and reasoned with myself. The solution I came to was to limit Atreyu’s choices by physically preventing him from leaving the car seat area, and talking to him about how we needed his cooperation to achieve what we all needed. I, as a rule, acknowledge what’s going on for him verbally, which supposedly speaks to the need driving his behavior. However, his environment is still controlled so that nobody is really having fun unless we can work together. It’s not like he can go play for a couple hours while I wait, you know? This is the same philosophy I employ when working on recalls with a creature that does not want to cooperate. You can reel a dog in on a leash/longline, but the animal never made a choice. Remove the physical control (i.e. the leash) and there is no hope. Instead, I’ll stand on the line and walk all the way up to the dog if I have to. But, you have to let the dog make the choice to come, even if it is only a matter of inches. So, maybe the dog can’t respond and come to you, away from a tantalizing distraction from 50ft, or even 5ft, but you have to start somewhere.
I’m sure some might think, that’s great in theory, but I don’t have the time to wait for my kid or dog to finally agree to work with me. Well, I firmly believe that you don’t have time not to! Here’s why: my toddler, from that day forward, was infinitely more cooperative and we have not had this degree of “fight” ever since this, dare I call it, 1st moment. The same goes for other animals. Not that I’m guaranteeing that you won’t have any battles. But, you’re forging a different type of relationship with this other “person”. A relationship where both parties matter and both have a responsibility and issues are resolved through cooperation as much as possible. From those few inches, skills blossom and grow…often to heights so far beyond where we started that it’s hard to fathom. I’ve seen this to be true time and time again. Pick a good system and trust the process.