Growing up we are exposed to and taught the inherited patterns of our family and society. If you want to shift to more constructive ways, you need to learn certain skills. It’s one thing to think something like, “I want to be more positive” and another to actually implement it throughout the fabric of your beliefs and practices. So, when my son was born I knew that I had a lot to learn and began looking for information.

Animal training continually teaches me so much. I’ve already stopped common practices like saying “No!” and “Don’t do that.” Pushing against something only serves to put the focus on those things you don’t want rather than guiding/informing about what you DO want. From years of working with animals, I know ideas for how to provide proactive direction, but have been searching for more about how to do this with my toddler.

Interestingly, there is a very logical parallel between good child rearing and good animal training. Recently, I read a fascinating book, “Positive Discipline” by Jane Nelsen. The fundamental principle is that misbehavior is actually indicative of unmet needs and addressing that need is ultimately the way to solutions. This is also an integral component of “Nonviolent Communication”, another philosophy/practice worth examining. And within both of these systems, the “other” (be it person, child, dog, etc) is given choices.

Strikingly, when children are asked “curiosity” questions about their behavior, they open up. Asking curiosity questions is such a beautiful skill! Then, listen with openness and wisdom. See with your High Self what’s really underneath it all. When you ask the other what’s going on, it may seem an advantage if they can speak (as opposed to dogs). Sometimes, but other times the words might lead you astray of the root cause. Often, we need to see beyond the words (especially with adults) to discover the real need(s) underneath. “Curiosity questions” can be really fun, by the way. They open up the path for both you and the other to grow. There’s so much more freedom and love and resolution (though don’t aim for that too quickly) in such an exchange. Being curious (rather than concluding and telling) invites quality, more than you’ve even conceived because you are receptive beyond your limited experience. So, this is actually very fun and rewarding and can expand way beyond the behavior issue at hand.

The next critical piece of the positive discipline equation is to ask the other what they think might be a helpful solution. Another transformative step, as people embrace the solutions they themselves come up with. Sure, they might need some guidance as they learn to focus on constructive ideas (rather than get mired in punitive consequences (which most of us have a lot more practice with)). And, they will often be cooperative and happy with a solution that they would otherwise resent if the parent/teacher imposed it. There’s something that seems to feed us when we are allowed to contribute. What’s more, sometimes the child/other will come up with a brilliant idea that you hadn’t even considered.

I find this all so thought-provoking. I’ve been examining some of these elements closely in regards to dog training, too. Let me first make it clear that “discipline” here does not mean “punitive”. We are talking about education and instruction…I like to think of it as guidance. The trick to positive training (and discipline) is guiding towards the desired outcomes through a process of reflection and choice. This is so cool. This is exactly what I want to explain to clients and friends is the difference between bad dog training and good dog training. It’s not about just getting the dog to stop doing that annoying thing. If you just force a change and don’t let the learner play an active role in learning, you aren’t reaping the rewards that can literally transform your relationship and the quality of life for both you and your dog (or kid;)

I’ve been thinking about these concepts so much, and, have been debating with myself and others about the efficacy of some practices. The (let’s call them) “positive camp” is currently favoring being totally forgiving. I wrestle with this because I see very effective learning coming from allowing mistakes. It’s a little simpler with a child who is capable of more complex reasoning, but, I think an important element that we ought not throw out with the bathwater is some accountability/responsibility on the learner’s part. In the positive discipline philosophy, when a child does not meet the criteria for the solution (that they arrived at, remember), then we follow up and reconsider or allow a natural consequence. We may gravitate towards natural consequences because they match the familiar style of punishment that seems to satisfy the traditional beliefs about “handling a problem”. But, we are warned to use them sparingly and come up with more productive solutions most of the time. A natural consequence would be something like getting wet because you didn’t bring your umbrella. But, just like with this example, while you might let your child get wet and uncomfortable, you’ll won’t let them develop hypothermia. But, you might say something like, “Oh, you’re all wet. I trust that you know where to find some dry clothes.” And, we are to stay entirely away from putting it back in the learner’s face saying something like, “I told you…./That’s what you get…”

We need to respond to the “errors” in a way that is productive, empowering, and, in my opinion, gives the child/dog some level of responsibility in the matter…and this is where I stray from the totally positive reinforcement camp.

I can see the potential fallout if this is not executed well, and this is surely one of the places where the art of training/teaching/guiding comes in. I’m not totally against allowing the learner to have a mistake/failure, but we certainly are best served by minimizing confusion, frustration, and other unwanteds. We want to strengthen the behavior/skills we seek to develop. And, it’s possible, that going too far either direction doesn’t maximize our potential.

So, what I’m positing is that, like with child rearing, we need to include an element (the effective amount) of responsibility to truly teach the skills to prepare our kid/dog well. This does not discount the fact that you must still shift criteria accordingly. In other words, let the child/dog/learner experiment, arrive at conclusions, and be present along the way to steer when needed, don’t let them fall too far off course, but do your best to let them try while still keeping them mostly successful. If you do a good job of this, you’ll be teaching skill sets that will allow them to thrive, even when there is pressure in life.

I know that, as a species, one of our biggest failings is that we tend to hold on too tight/long. Most of us need to more easily let go and listen. Ask thought provoking questions before jumping in and all over the other person (Ahem, note to self). Allow the other some freedom while you supervise. Evidence has proven that parents who are too authoritarian and too permissive yield similar poor results in teaching kids the skills they need in life. It appears that being present and available to guide (not control) is the clearly the best. So, I’ll continue to examine these thoughts and work on developing myself and my strategies to respect, honor and teach the “others” entrusted to my care.

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