My wife and I are pretty keen on our dog, Winifred. We refer to her as our first born, as our dog-hter, and as Gryff’s older sister. Yes, we’re those people. Before we got her two years ago, I went a bit nuts reading books about dog behavior and training. I learned a lot about clicker training, specifically the concepts behind operant conditioning and progressive reinforcement training. I loved it. I was inspired. This was how I wanted to raise my dog. Not by hitting her or yelling at her, but by using Science! to teach her without having to be a jerk about it. Learning about clicker training gave me another option, and I devoured everything I could find on the subject. I became an evangelist. I started silently judging people for mistreating their dogs. I got into arguments with friends about different training philosophies. In short, I did pretty much the same thing I do whenever I get passionate about anything. You can send sympathy cards to my wife, if you’d like. She signed up for a lifetime of my nonsense and she handles it like a champ.
So this was two years ago, before we were really thinking seriously about babies. I loved all the info I was reading and it worked beautifully with the dog (when I did it, which wasn’t as often as I’d like). Then I realized something interesting: I was learning far more about how people work than I intended to. I mean, I realize we’re all just animals in an intellectual way, but when you start explaining human action in terms of behavioral cues and punishment and variable reinforcement schedules, things get eerie. You start understanding why people do the things they do, even when there’s no logical reason for it. This was interesting, and I immediately saw the applications for it in my own life. One of the first, though still sort of nebulous at that point, was in raising my eventual children.
Both my wife and I were raised with some measure of corporal punishment, and we’d talked about spanking when we talked about how we wanted to raise our kids. Surely, you couldn’t hope to raise a child properly without smacking them around a little, right? Well the more I learned about operant conditioning, the less sure I became about that and the more I started thinking about following my baby around with a clicker and a bag full of raisins. It’s completely insane, but based on all the scientific evidence that would obviously be the best way to train a child, right?
When my wife and I first found out we were pregnant, I started reading some books on Attachment Parenting but didn’t really read enough of them to get myself past my fundamental misunderstanding of the concept of AP. My thinking on parenting (and what I thought AP was about) at this point: Punishment is bad because it’s damaging to the relationship, and only ensures that the trainee will obey while the trainer is present. Make sure your rewards are reinforcing enough to ensure improved reliability in the future. Always demand progressively more or better response to cues before giving rewards, to help shape behavior. And all of it is done without physical punishment, yelling, or really anything negative at all. The worst you do is to ignore their bad behavior (negative punishment). Attachment Parenting, to my mind, was essentially clicker training for human babies. No idea where I came up with this idea, but there you have it. So it sounds very friendly, very progressive, very forward-thinking and scientific, especially when compared to the standard of spankings and hollering.
I was in good company with my thinking about the ideal way to raise a child, if you like the mainstream. “Sleep training” is the first thing that comes to mind, but when you know some of the principles of animal training, you begin to see how the vast majority of modern parenting strategies look a lot more like training a dog than raising a human being to be a self-sufficient adult. The difference was only in whether you trained your baby with punishment or rewards. I was very nearly suckered into the false dichotomy, and the worst part is that I thought those gentler principles of baby training were the principles of Attachment Parenting. I had an incomplete view, and honestly, I was so subconsciously tied up in the whole idea that raising a child involves ensuring obedience that I honestly couldn’t see another way. Once I really started learning (just in the past month or two), and more importantly thinking, about what my role as a parent is, I began to see that I don’t want an obedient child. I don’t want a well-trained child. I want a child who knows that he is loved, explores his world with passion, is emotionally and physically healthy, and grows up to be a caring, self-disciplined, and confident adult. I think that’s reasonable. I’ll be there for him his whole life if he needs me, but there’s a lot he’s going to have to do on his own. My job, as I see it, is to prepare him for those times as best I can.
What inspired this post was reading a draft I started right after Gryff was born, talking about how raising a baby is just like raising a dog. I hadn’t realized just how significantly my views had changed until I re-read that post. I still feel like my dog taught me a lot of lessons that I bring to my parenting, but now I realize that she was mostly just helping me grow up. I learned patience with that dog, and empathy. Those are very important traits for a parent to have, so I still credit Winifred with helping me be a better parent. Just not quite the same way as I was originally thinking.
So where does that leave me? It leaves me reading books and blogs and doing a lot of thinking, really. Thinking about whether I still have any remaining, subconscious ideas about parenting that need to be examined. I would imagine I do, and I’m hoping that absorbing every scrap of info that I can on the subject of parenting and child development will help me find them, and to bring them out into the sunlight where I can take a good, hard look at them. I’m not going to accept anything that calls itself Attachment Parenting as gospel, of course, and I will eventually have to find the balance that works for me and my family. I’ve changed my mind on a variety of topics in the parenting realm since I really started learning about it, and I’m sure I’ll continue to change my mind as I learn more. That’s the journey, and for me it involves a lot of reading, a lot of introspection, and a lot of blogging. I’ll be posting some articles I’ve read and enjoyed, some book reviews, and probably a few more philosophical pieces as well in the coming weeks. I process by blogging much of the time, so this stuff is as much for my benefit as it is for anyone else’s. I’m just a dad trying to do the best I can at the most important job in the world, so I’m always open to input or suggestions for further research. Thanks for reading!