You & Your Family

Training animals and humans

Oct 2011    

I REHABILITATE DOGS AND I TRAIN OWNERS.” Mr Cesar Milan, who appears on the popular TV series “The Dog Whisperer” on the National Geographic Channel, reminds viewers of this dictum throughout the programme.

I must say that as a Marital and Family Therapist who has seen some families bringing in their troublesome children for counselling, I can see the wisdom of Mr Milan’s words.

Drawing a parallel with the context of training humans, it might be said that parents sometimes see their children behaving in a problematic manner because they think that their children have not been taught to behave correctly. As a result, children are controlled by their wants and desires, fail to observe limits to their behaviours and use temper tantrums when they do not get what they want.

Some parents, driven to despair, either resort to very harsh forms of discipline or give up altogether. A few go to child psychologists and counsellors, in the hope that these professionals can “knock some sense” (words from many an exasperated client) into their children. These parents seem to respond in the same way as some dog owners who send their pets to Obedience School.

I wish that parents coming to counselling can have some of the same expectations as pet owners, namely, that of wanting their child to behave better but also wanting to learn how to draw out this behaviour.

They need to appreciate that they can learn to encourage and reinforce good behaviour when their child presents it and not have to rely on experts to do this for them.

Here are some examples of the principles Mr Milan uses which are rooted in psychology and can also apply to training parents and their children.

Firstly, Mr Milan has a good understanding of the characteristics of each breed of dogs he handles. For example, he knows which dogs are more territorial and which are very active, and manages them accordingly. This tells me that as parents we must learn to know and understand the characteristics of our children.

Secondly, he always begins by building a rapport with each dog and owner. With some dogs, it starts with him exerting the dominant dog position; with other dogs, he is more nurturing and assuring. He constantly wants all the owners to know that they and only they should take the lead and be in control of their pet.

Parents will also do well to remember these principles. No matter how ill-behaved your child may be, you can and should take the lead in this relationship. Remember that the basis of this obedient relationship is the existence of a close rapport between the two parties.

A third principle I observed is how Mr Milan uses both verbal and non-verbal aspects of communication to convey his messages. He warns pet owners not to send mixed messages as this can be confusing to the animal. Likewise, we as parents are also guilty of sending mixed messages.

A final principle I want to highlight is that good behaviour is always rewarded and bad behaviour is always checked. I have not seen any episode in which Mr Milan hit the animal but I have seen him restrain them. He is able to do this not just because of his years of experience but also by maintaining his composure. This is an important reminder. Our children are affected by our calmness, irritability and anxieties.

I know there are many differences between training dogs and training humans. One major difference is that the kids we often have to deal directly with are our own children. Another big difference is that unlike dogs, our children can “talk back” and argue with us, testing our patience sorely with their disobedience and defiance. With so much emotional investment wrapped up in this relationship, we struggle to remain calm when our children disappoint us.

But one difference to bear in mind is that as a species of a higher order, we are blessed with more intelligence. Therefore, our children can learn pro-social behaviour faster and as parents, we can be more creative in handling them. Alas, this potential seems to elude some parents and perhaps we may need an Obedience School for parents and their children. If such a day comes, we might need to borrow Mr Milan’s statement to say: “I rehabilitate children and I train parents.”

Benny Bong is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church, is a family and marital therapist.

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