Should I Train My Child….Like a Dog?!


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Last week I shared a post here on Mothering called, “There is Not Always A “Fix” For the Difficult Child.”


It was actually a post I wrote some time ago on my own blog about my then two year old.  That two year old is now three (almost four) and things have changed some.  She is still a firecracker.  She still has a strong personality.  She still likes to boss around me and anybody else near her.  And I still love her and am still trying to figure things out.


There was an interesting comment on the post when I shared it on Mothering though.  She pointed out that I was the problem in the relationship with my daughter and the reason she acts the way she does.  Let me just share a bit of it.  (Now don’t go commenting and tearing this woman apart.  Her thoughts are valid and probably pretty common.)


You need to learn to over come that “pain center” and learn to be the master. Until you do, your child will only act that way to you, because your child is not the problem, you are. Your child does not need to be fixed, but you do. Take an animal class on being master to a dog, and you can do this, you can learn it. I had to, I recall having to force my daughter to take a nap, as she cried in her crib, I cried outside the door. The pain center in my brain to assert law and order towards her, literally gave me pain in my head, it hurt me more than her. But once I did it, she became a great child. Ponder this, the child is being a mirror to the caretaker, showing the flaws of the caretaker in acting out. A nanny would confirm this, as they are avid teachers of law and order that produces happy active and healthy children. Those nannies had to go through much training, and then again, they are not caring for children they gave birth to. My husband had to learn to say to me when I didn’t instill law and order, “cut the cord.” He was right, and the evidence was a happy child when I learned how to lead.” 

This isn’t the entire quote, but it is the gist of it.  She also talked about how women need to “get over” listening to the cries of their children and be a little bit more like … well, men, in this regard.  It got me thinking, this comment did.  So let’s talk…

Now I should admit up front that I am no attachment parenting guru, junkie or firm believer.  I do some things that are very “attached”, but as time has gone on and I have added children in a relatively quick fashion, I have found that extremism in the AP camp simply makes me want to jump off a balcony.  And frankly, if mom is so sleep deprived and miserable from various aspects of parenting, the whole family suffers.  (Yes, this can happen with attachment parenting.  Ask around.  Or just ask me.)

That being said, I am still kind of a sucker when it comes to crying babies.  I have four kids now and somebody is usually crying at any given moment so I can tune out crying these days … but a baby.  That is a different story.

I actually have a hard time believing that women should TOTALLY tune out the tears of their infants.  I am kind of old fashioned in this way, but I actually still think that women have special gifts as nurturers.  I LOVE this about being a woman.  I think there is great power in sensitivity and kindness and nurturing.  My husband — he parents differently than I do.  And while this results in the occasional conflict, in the long run I think we balance each other out.  In fact, I kind of think of parenting with a partner as a kind of prolonged game of good cop/bad cop.  And, since I am the nurturing mother, I often get to play good cop.

I don’t know why the founders of this magazine named it “Mothering”, but I want to believe that they saw this too — the beauty of a nurturing mother.  It is a wonderful thing to “mother”, not a weakness.

I am sincerely and frequently more sensitive to the needs of my kids than he (my husband) is.  We work together and we (hopefully) will end up with functional adults at some later date.  Time will tell.

But back to the comment — she mentions a few times learning from her husband how to be more of a leader or a “bad cop”.  I can honestly see how this might yield a more behaved child.  But I can also really see some beauty in children having somebody to hug them when they get disciplined.  Not because mom and dad are on different teams, but because sometimes they play different roles on the same team.  One has to lay down the law, and the other gets to recognize that this might be necessary, but it isn’t always easy.

Call me crazy for believing that justice goes down a little easier with some mercy to tag along.

The other thing that really stood out to me in this comment was the reference to dog training!  Kind of funny — right?!  (Or not.)

Now my husband and I actually did read Cesar Milan’s book on training puppies when we got a dog and we learned a lot from it.  In fact, there are some good lessons for parents in there.  Consistency.  Safety.  Proper feeding.  Boundaries.  Those are kind of universal things when it comes to caring for other humans, just like dogs.  But I don’t really think that Cesar means his book to be applied to all human relationships.  He talks a lot about “dog psychology”, so I assume he realizes that human psychology is a little different.

And it is true that you can yield some very bratty kids if they are treated as though they are the absolute “alpha dog” in the family “pack”.  But I like to believe that family dynamics are a little more fluid and complicated than a dog pack.  Milan talks a lot about establishing dominance so that the dogs will recognize you as the alpha or pack leader.

I can actually admit that when I read Cesar’s book I dreamt fondly of being the pack leader in my house …  That would be nice.

And as the mom I kind of AM the leader … sometimes.

But I hope my kids don’t come out of my home thinking that one person gets to be in charge and everybody else just has to fight for second place.  I hope they learn in our home (and from me) the beauty of sacrifice.  The joy of giving so that somebody else can have.  The love that grows when you do something kind for somebody just because you wanted to.  And I hope they learn that sometimes they will be on the receiving end of kindness, and often they need to be on the giving end.  In fact, I hope that I am clear enough and honor my own needs enough that they realize that sometimes even MOM needs others to give for her.

The truth is that family dynamics are much more complicated than an alpha dog and a pecking order in a dog pack.  Part of being a child and growing in a family is learning that there is something wonderful about NOT being the alpha every once in a while.  (And I think sometimes AP has a tendency to forget that people other than the child have needs.  But maybe that is just me.)

The other thing I noticed about this comment was the apparent “one time” cry-it-out session that magically yielded a wonderful child.

You know what — if making a child fabulous was that easy, I would sign up TODAY.

I will go ahead and commit parenting suicide right now and admit that at some time I have let all of my kids cry.  I am not proud of it, but I am not too ashamed either.  If I let my child cry, it was because I seriously felt like I couldn’t take it any more OR I felt that they just needed a minute without my stress OR I was too frustrated to be a good parent without a break.

I don’t love cry-it-out, but there may, at times, be a place for it.

But I SERIOUSLY doubt that letting a child cry makes them perfect in one night.  There is literally nothing about being a parent that is that easy.  I have however had children with a personalty that lacked what I will call “fight”.  Some kids are more willing to fuss for a minute or two and then say, “This sucks.  I’m going to sleep.”  I have had kids like this and I will tell you — they are easy to put to bed.

Now, my almost four year old that I wrote about and that this mom commented about — she was NOT that child.  There are lots of mistakes I make with her and I am sure some of them contribute to her inappropriate behavior.  But some of who she is — it is just HER.  As parents I think sometimes we need to … well, feel less guilty.  We also need to recognize that our children have free will and agency.  We have the same gift.  Just because they are little doesn’t mean they don’t have agency as well.  They may not be old or wise enough to always know WHAT they should do with that free agency, but we are old enough and wise enough to respect them (and expect some respect in return.)

I guess all I am trying to say is that raising kids isn’t quite as easy as raising a dog.  If it were, they would potty train when they were a few weeks old and I could shower them with a hose and lock them outside when I had people over.

Parenting is a little more complicated than dog training, and the stakes are higher, but hopefully the rewards are much greater.  And hopefully we as mothers honor our need for respect without forgetting that to be a nurturing, loving, and kind mother is a beautiful thing.  We should never be ashamed of nurturing our children.  They aren’t dogs and we are so much more than trainers.

About Sarah Clark

Sarah Clark is a mother of four children between the ages of 8 and 2 years.  She is a natural birth teacher and serves on the management team for Birth Boot Camp, a company offering live and online natural birth classes.  She washes a lot of towels.  Because seriously, kids use a lot of towels.

5 thoughts on “Should I Train My Child….Like a Dog?!”

  1. Good response, justice always needs grace, I think we sometimes confuse mercy with a lack of rules. But that’s the point – sometimes you need to bend a little to get the job done. In this case, the job of being a mother.

  2. My husband and I decided that we wanted to raise a thinking, feeling human and not an automaton who “obeys” without question. That means we sometimes get “lip” or extended arguments/discussions. But, in the end, there is a lot of communication and a lot of chances for life lessons to be learned. It is hard and it is time consuming. And I’ve noticed that parents who get easily embarrassed by “poorly behaved” children as a reflecting poorly on themselves have a harder time with what they see as a more “lenient” style. There are nonnegotiables when it comes to how we expect our son to behave, but we recognize it is all a learning process for him. Sometimes he’ll get it and sometimes he won’t. He’s six now and one of the most well behaved children I know. But he doesn’t stuff his emotions and he doesn’t lie or hide stuff from us (yet!). He is authentic and honest and incredibly caring. He’s also pig headed, impatient and snotty at times. He’s human.

  3. I haven’t (yet) read the original article, but as the mother of a VERY spirited 2 1/2 year old, I hear you from all sides on this response. Our children are more than the sum of their temperaments and our leadership skills – I think I should trust myself to know what is enough or not enough control for my child in particular. Now, I will also take every bit of advice and consider it, because you never know what will click for you and your child. But I truly believe that love and positive attention go a long way towards solving most problems.

  4. Many of the arguments listed here seem to be a cultural thing. One of my favorite parenting books is written by a Laos monk, regarding his experience with the children living in the temple and his interpretation as a spiritual teacher. Most chapters are titled “How to train your children to…..” and establishes the parents as the heads of the household. This doesn’t mean that children should not have free will, and honestly, most of the content is about rewiring parents brains to take responsibility for the way their children are acting and giving the kids more respect as equals.
    The main difference is that in western cultures we see many actions as personality traits that an eastern culture would view as a character defect. It’s not a bad thing. It’s just a different perspective, putting more enphasis on the wants of the individual rather than the community or “pack.”

  5. This is an amazing article that speaks volumes to what I have found helpful in raising my very very spirited child. I have found that being a strong leader, making sound solid decisions and not allowing tantrums, backtalk, or door slamming has made a happier home environment and a happier child. I will say that again- I do not allow it and therefore it no longer happens. I said – there will be consequences you will not like (simple easy time outs or no television- its not torture) and I will deliver them even if it means you spend all day on the time out spot and I will not feel sorry for you. When children think that emotional disorder will be “honored” and given a reward ( hugs sympathy etc.) they will continue to behave that way. Like Ceasar says with dogs and physical attention- reward them when they are not having a meltdown, hugs and kisses when they are calm and behaving well. Once I became the parent they needed- a pack leader if you will. I no longer felt emotionally manipulated to always rescue them from themselves and they learned how to control themselves. Self control is possible, intensity can me managed and used in a useful way. I have my intense girl in karate lessons- she takes out the frustration and emotions in a constructive way now. And the sensei doesn’t take any lip! I didn’t get to be the parent I wanted to be, I am the parent she needs.

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