Training a Dog—or a Child

September 29, 2014


Suppose you want to train a dog to stand up on his hind legs. There are a number of ways to do that, but they tend to distill into a basic pattern: once you prompt the dog to stand—because you hold a piece of food high, or because you use a hand gesture, or whatever—you REWARD the dog, usually with a favorite food. You can then use that technique to prompt the dog to stand up whenever you wish.

On many occasions, I have watched young children attempt to get their parent’s attention. When they’re very young they begin with a whimper, and if that doesn’t work, they raise the volume until mom or dad finally pays attention. As they get older, kids learn to do this much faster.

The other day in a store, a four-year-old tugged on his mother’s pants as he called out to her. She didn’t react in the slightest. He said “Mom” again, this time louder and while tugging more forcefully on her pants. He did this repeatedly, with increasing volume and energy.

At one point, I had a slight urge to approach and tap her on the shoulder. “Ma’am, I’d like to introduce you to your son. He keeps calling your name and pulling on you, but you’re not responding. So either you don’t realize that this is your child—hence my introduction—or perhaps the child is confused and has lost his mother.”

What I observed was almost exactly how you train a dog. The mother had trained her child that in order to get her attention, he had to scream and pull at her violently. Oddly, the child had also trained the mother to pay attention to him with screaming and violence.

This kind of training—which most of us give our children in various ways—is unspeakably harmful. They learn that they’re objects instead of beloved children. And then they carry this training into their relationships with friends, teachers, bosses, and relationship partners.

We have a choice to make. We could keep administering this training, or we could simply love and teach them, which results in children learning to behave in ways that consistently make them happy. The latter approach is far simpler and more effective.

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