Training is Tricky

Sue Patterson, who has taken up the Unschooling Blog Carnival along with Cydney Romano, has been bugging me to write a blog post about their next month’s theme, which is “Animals.” I’ve been uninspired in spite of the fact that our family has a new dog, Persie, a small, female mixed terrier we rescued in late December from the city animal shelter. (She is named after Robin Van Persie, the soccer player, by the way.)

I think my lack of inspiration might be because the connection between unschooling and animals is almost too obvious. I mean, animals and unschooling seem to go together like peanut butter and jelly. Yes, of course, you can have one without the other – but boy, oh boy, are they good together!

Still, I don’t feel very inspired to write about all the great things kids learn from interacting with animals. I thought I could write about Rosie’s years of intense involvement with horses. Or, maybe Roxana’s deep, deep love for all things related to cats would be interesting. I could talk about Roya swimming out in the ocean among the dolphins and where that kind of experience has brought her today. These interests led from one thing to another and resulted in a tremendous wealth of opportunities for learning all kinds of things.

But, right now, we have a new one-year-old dog and we’re taking her to “puppy school.” So I’m immersed in thoughts of “training” and positive reinforcement. And I can’t help considering how this kind of dog training compares to how our children grew up. People sometimes talk about unschooling their dog. I think by that they mean they are kind and generous and give a lot of freedom to their pet and the dog learns without formal training. The instructors at our puppy classes might be a little surprised to discover how sweet a dog can be and how much it can learn if given appropriate and accurate feedback, but not formal behaviorist training. But I think this approach applies to some breeds far more than others. Our instructors are very into positive reinforcement – training dogs to do tricks using treats as rewards. I keep imagining training our children that way, thinking how silly it seems, and then I remember that this IS the way many people think of raising children. Well, many use negative reinforcement (punishment) and the more enlightened use positive rewards instead of negative consequences. This is the reason for gold stars and stickers and free pizza for reading 15 minutes a day and so on.

Of course, dogs DO respond to incentives, and so do people. Our instructors’ dogs are trained to do over 200 tricks. Could I, or would I want to, say the same about my children? If want my dog to sit and stay on command, I can train her to do that. It takes time, but it isn’t at all hard. I just have to keep rewarding successive approximations of what I want her to do and, eventually, she’ll do it when I tell her to do it. This is behavior shaping and it can work on people, too. Why not train our kids like we train dogs?

The answer is that we want more from our children than instant obedience, we want them to learn to use judgment and take initiative and, well, think for themselves. Training them with rewards may seem positive and at least better than using threats and punishments. It may seem easy and may get short-term results. But, good strong human relationships do not develop between parents and children when parents treat children like pets who need to be trained.

And yet, people do respond to incentives and behaviors do have consequences. Sometimes people say they are using “logical” or “natural” consequences to teach their children. These are typically euphemisms for a form of punishment – a way to “negatively reinforce” certain behaviors. This is the flip side of reward training. If a child leaves a toy outdoors and it begins to rain, the parent may call it a natural or logical consequence to leave the toy outdoors to be ruined. I call it mean and that is exactly what the child will think of it.

Is there an alternative? Yes. Relationship-based parenting is living in a household with each person giving and getting what they need, including support and encouragement and information. Parents take responsibility for being kind and generous with their children while their their children are growing into kind and responsible people, themselves. The parents do this by BEING kind and generous and responsible with their children. Children learn what they live with. Parents should also give good, clear, and accurate information to help their kids understand how the world works, but they can do that while being kind and helpful, they don’t have to create opportunities for negative lessons to be learned. “I brought your doll in out of the rain; I dried her off and I think she’ll be okay,” versus “You left your doll out in the rain after I’d told you 10 times to bring her in. It is your responsibility and I warned you so I left her there and now she’s ruined.” The first parent has just helped her child along the road to learning thoughtfulness, care of property, and kindness. The second parent has modeled irritation, impatience, and cold-heartedness. Which will the child learn?

Children are not pets to be trained, but young humans to be loved and guided with compassion and kindness. My dog seems to be enjoying her puppy school training sessions. She’s excited and eager. But my children would have felt manipulated, insulted, and controlled and would NOT have responded well.

Do you remember “Silly Pet Tricks?” I hate to mention it, because someone might take me up on it, but I can easily imagine a tv reality show called, “Silly Kid Tricks,” where parents are taught to use positive reinforcement to shape a child into doing some foolish-looking behavior. Let’s not go there. Let’s love and share and model and live our lives with our children and avoid trying to manipulate them into doing tricks for us.

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Frank
    Mar 02, 2012 @ 01:25:35

    Well said, as usual, Pam. Happy blog carnival!



  2. hilinda
    Mar 05, 2012 @ 23:28:27

    Training is appropriate when someone needs to learn a physical skill. Not so much for everything else.
    As my mentor often says, “the only thing worse than someone who can’t do what they are told is someone who can’t do anything else.” Granted, he’s talking primarily about a situation where there is a “chain of command,” not a family, but the point is still well taken. I don’t want my kids to “do what they are told,” I want them to be able to think for themselves and make a decision to do what is right.
    My dog? I want him to be happy and healthy. We did the whole puppy training thing, and had fun with it. We’re not so much into tricks, but it’s good that he’ll come when he’s called. HE likes to do tricks because he gets treats, so sometimes we’ll have him sit or lie down or run back and forth between us, as an excuse to play and give him lots of attention and treats.
    I’d rather my kids learn to cook. 🙂



    • Pam Sorooshian
      Mar 06, 2012 @ 00:16:02

      I agree. When people speak of training children the way one might train animals, it means getting them to do something the trainer wants them to do by shaping their behavior with rewards and punishments. When a person trains – like in a martial art, for example – it means they work systematically at a process of improving their own skills. Same word – different connotations entirely.

      As far as someone who “can’t do what they are told,” is that different than “chooses not to do what they are told?” I’ve chosen to be in situations where it is appropriate for me to do what I’m told, but it isn’t a conditioned response,it is a choice.



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