We brought a puppy into our family almost three weeks ago. Her name is Lily and she is as cute and sweet as a puppy can be.
Her presence in my life has already radically changed my days and my thinking. Here’s the distilled version of what I’ve learned:
Respect sits at the centre of everything.
Most of this learning has been cultivated during walks with Lily. We walk together several times a day for 20-30 minutes. Anyone who has had the pleasure of walking through Pomona Mills in Thornhill, will understand the all-seasons appeal of the landscape. Right now, the greenery is barely holding on and Lily is distracted by the leaves that have fallen to tempt her on every surface.
When Lily isn’t encountering potential playmates and general puppy admirers she is examining everything that we pass – usually with her nose or her mouth, until she decides to lie down and scratch herself. Or simply flop down on the grass with the air of someone planning a long rest. Then, there is the perennial dog owner favourite, when she starts to play tug of war with her leash, barking and snarling in the spirit of fun. Thus, in addition to the ways that being with Lily helps me engage with the world in ways that I wouldn’t without her, segments of our time together knock the crap out of me. (No dog walking pun intended.)
Doesn’t this also sound like raising children? When I’m not completely charmed and entranced with my kids, I’m exhausted from power struggles or the sheer time and energy it takes to help keep them safe and assist in the organization of their lives. I’m happy to report that my children are seldom barking and snarling – but I am worried about what they’ll put in their mouths (even at 11, 14 and 16) and we do play tug of war on any number of issues – mostly because they don’t always want to do what I am asking them to do – so much so that sometimes they simply refuse.
These parenting challenges are not new for me (although they are taking new form as the kids get older) and I am regularly trying to “solve” them. I’m beginning to understand that it’s all about respect.
This is not the respect that I was raised with. This isn’t respect your manners. Or respect your elders. Or respect the rules. The respect that I am referring to is mutual respect, but I think I’ve gotten ahead of myself.
I’m not usually thinking about the respect that I need to offer to Lily or my kids. I am usually thinking about the respect that I want them to give to me.
I’m reading one of Cesar Millan’s books about raising puppies. Cesar gave me a great exercise to do yesterday. He recommended that I make a list of my training expectations for Lily. Given my parallel children/puppy thinking, I decided to make a list for both puppy and kid expectations.
Here’s what I came up with:
Come when called.
Sit when asked.
Lie down when asked.
Get up when asked.
Behave well around other people.
Behave well around other dogs.
Come when called.
Sit when asked.
Lie down when asked.
Get up when asked.
Behave well around adults.
Behave well around their peers.
I confess, some of this is tongue and cheek and I originally had a different list for the kids that included generosity, kindness and compassion, but when I started listing out my puppy aspirations, I realized that I really want the same behavior from my children. Bottom line: I want the puppy and the kids to respect my authority.
That brought a realization for me. Part of the answer is their safety and laying a foundation for future success navigating their way through life with these important habits and skills.
The other part?
I don’t want to be tired out by debating with them. It’s tiring debating everything. I want the kids to do the chores – not aggravate me by arguing about the chores. I want Lily to come when she’s called, not waste my time by sniffing around the backyard when I have other things to do. I want the kids to interact with my family at events, not be glued to their phones.
As I contemplated this I realized how I have been defining respect.
Respect = trusting that I know what’s best + taking care of my needs
There are two huge challenges with this view of respect. One is that I’m asking four beings who are invested in their own independence to follow my judgement (and ideally without questioning it, because you know, that’s tiring). Secondly, I’m putting my self-care into the hands of children and a puppy.
You can see how problematic this is. Furthermore, it is really common thinking and acting. Why did we need to be quiet in the lunch room in elementary school? Because we were giving the Lunch Lady a headache. Why does Lily need to move at my pace on our walks instead of hers’? Because I have work I need to get done and I didn’t allot time for her to sniff every blade of grass.
It wasn’t very compelling for me and my Grade Four peers to protect the Lunch Lady’s head (not least because her general request for us to be quiet was transmitted by telling us to “Sit down and Shut up”). I realize this isn’t very different from me causing strain on Lily’s neck and her eardrums by pulling her away from the tantalizing beetle moving across the sidewalk. Lily didn’t learn very much (except that she can move away from an interesting object to relieve the discomfort I’m causing her) and maybe she didn’t learn anything at all if instead of giving into my pleading leash pull, she lay down on the ground. My method wasn’t very compelling for her.
It’s likely that the problem wasn’t in those moments of aggravation and power struggle. I have realized that power struggles can be transformed into learning moments. It’s started to happen already and it feels so much better.
I’ll get to that in a moment, but first, I want to make clear that it’s not that I don’t understand the loftier ideals at work. Lily needs to understand my authority so I can keep her safe, when necessary, and in elementary school, we rambunctious students needed to learn social conduct and generate sympathy for the Lunch Lady’s physical discomfort.
Yet, I don’t believe that’s Lily is understanding my authority in those moments that are so aggravating for both of us. I don’t believe that the kids are cultivating a sense of the importance of being a contributing part of our household when I’m expressing my aggravation for them not getting their chores done.
I believe there are two issues to be resolved. The first is redefining respect. It is not blind submission and accepting responsibility for other people’s needs. Who wouldn’t rebel against that? The second is making time to practice respect – for all of us to practice it. Most especially me.
My new understanding of respect has valuing another’s authority and autonomy at the centre. The way to teach this kind of respect to the kids and the puppy is to model it. I’m not thinking about the occasional moments when I’m protecting the kids and the puppy from danger. It’s about all the other moments that don’t warrant much force. Don’t we all thrive when others respect our authority and autonomy to the limits possible?
Emphasizing valuing another’s authority and autonomy is important. Value. Not submit. I believe that relationships that are spent (puppy and children alike) investing in mutual respect produce higher levels of compliance in the moments that I have been finding trying. Valuing is the same as appreciating. Appreciating takes time and effort.
These are the philosophical thoughts that I’ve had while pulling Lily back from diving head first into bushes of burrs; discouraging the consumption of goose poop or occasionally begging her to get up from the ground to walk the extra 10 feet to our driveway. Okay, I’m not having those thoughts in the actual moments that I’m struggling with Lily. My thoughts are more often turned to what the people who are walking by are thinking about my substandard puppy training. Other times I’m wondering if she’ll ever get up off the ground and what I will be forced to do if she doesn’t. Yesterday, I wondered how much goose poop it might take to make her sick and if her consumption was going to have a negative impact on her health and my sleep. Mostly, I’m thinking that this isn’t a good time and I have other things to do.
I have the same kind of thoughts when my kids are texting at family events. Or refusing to shower and/or change out of the shirt they have worn for going on 36 hours.
My methods for both puppies and children so far have sometimes been sharp “No”s, sometimes followed by desperate pleading, often followed by aggravated sulkiness.
You won’t be surprised to hear that I have limited success with these methods.
Yesterday, Cesar instructed me that the puppy and I should be enjoying our training sessions. Am I enjoying my “training sessions” with the puppy and the kids? I believe I could be more and that if I do, then the enjoyment will extend to the kids’ and puppy’s experiences too.
It’s not that the puppy and kids don’t need to hear “No”. They do. It’s not even that I don’t want Lily and the kids to respect me and my authority. I really do. It’s that I’ve learned that if I want this to happen that I need to offer it to the kids and Lily. I don’t think it’s possible to do all the time, but I think it’s possible to do it much, more and that the more I give the kids respect, the more likely it is that I will have receive it from them.
Easier said than done, right?
I believe I know the way how. It requires practicing three things: patience, rest and play.
If I am to offer respect then I need to be patient. There needs to be room for error. Room for trying methods that don’t work. Room for frustration, aggravation and rebellion. We’re all learning and very flawed. Learning takes time.
It’s also so important to play. I feel good when I play with them. They feel good when they play with me. We all need play time. Whatever it looks like – sometimes it’s playful words, sometimes a card game, sometimes throwing the Frisbee. Playing is the best and builds up a tremendous amount of good will for everyone involved.
Here’s the challenge: exercising patience and engaging in play, take a ton of physical resources (although less physical resources than engaging in endless power struggles and feeling miserable about not getting needs met).
I need to have rest. Without rest, I don’t have the physical resources to be patient. Rest doesn’t just mean sleep. It also means time away from the puppy and the kids. Thoughtful time when I’m taking care of my needs. If I take care of my needs then I’m not relying on a puppy, two teenagers and an eleven-year-old to take care of my needs. Seems like a safer bet.
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think this is easy and I don’t think it’s new. It is the essence of what Hillel said over two thousand years ago, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” (Pirkei Avot). I’ve simply decided to start extending this principle to puppies and children.