Monday, January 3, 2011

Remember what you say...

Yesterday was cold here in Wisconsin. It is, after all, January. But we'd just had a big melt and my usual walking path was largely uncovered after a month of thick snow and ice. My dogs were glued to my side - I couldn't take a step without one in front of me and one behind. Usually it's only one being pushy at a time unless it's meal time and it wasn't. Then I remembered that after the first big snowfall I'd promised them we'd walk again when the path was visible and safe. So I leashed up the dogs and off we went.

Now the likelihood of the dogs actually remembering what I said to them a month ago, let alone understand it at the time, is debatable. But it made me think of other ears that may or may not remember what I've said and promised and how it may be interpreted.

Long, long ago in my first teaching job at a Catholic school I had a parent ask if I'd threatened to hit my students. I was shocked! I would never say, let alone do, such a thing! After a bit more conversation I stretched my mind back to a moment of frustration with my class when I said something about in my mother's day kids got whacked with a ruler for acting like this. It was meant to be cautionary, but mostly that the kids should be grateful things changed. Well, what changed was the interpretation of the comment.

I learned a couple of lessons from this:
1) What I mean to say may not be what is understood.
2) Don't say things that I can't back up with actions. In other words, don't say it if I'm not willing to do it.

These lessons have stuck with me even after I left the classroom and I use it both with my dogs and my children.

#1 is easy with dogs. Give my commands clearly and simply and things tend to work out. Not as easy with the children. While I still try to state things clearly and simply when I want to be understood, the kids key into the things I don't expect to them to understand or they misunderstand what I say.

Children, like dogs, tend to hear certain words even though they understand far more words than dogs do. (Usually.) They hear "hate" or "bad" or "stupid" and instead of hearing "I hate it when you kick my seat" they hear "". This has lead me to using the phrase "understand" as well as giving the child a clear alternative behavior. (Redirection - it works for dogs and kids.) Instead of "I hate it when you kick my seat" I try to remember to say "Don't kick my seat. Put your feet against your own seat instead. Do you understand what I'm telling you?" It takes longer to say, but it usually leads to less confusion and/or hurt feelings in the long run.

#2 is tough regardless of dog or child interaction. You tell a kid or dog to do something and they don't do it, what do you do? Ideally you follow through with whatever consequences have been agreed on - gently taking the dog by the collar, giving the child a time out or whatever. Remember all behavior has a consequence - will the consequence in the case of a lack of behavior be that the behavior is corrected or will the non-behavior response be allowed to continue? Hopefully you'll follow through so the child or dog doesn't learn to ignore you.

Of course it's easy for me to say this while I'm sitting, child and dog free, in a car dealership waiting for my Swagger Wagon to be ready for me. But when I'm exhausted and I've got a screaming infant and a whiny toddler and Bug tells me no, she's not going to put her things away I have a choice to make. Do I let the backpack and snow pants sit in the middle of the living room, do I put them away myself, or will there be a negative consequence for Bug? Even though it will be a pain at the moment to follow through, either with a time out, removal of privilege or something else, in the long run it will be worth it since with consistency Bug should learn that I mean what I say and it's less hassle for her to just do it when told.

DH and I have a saying and I don't remember where it's from - "Stop or I'll tell you to stop again." It applies to stubborn children and canines alike. There comes a time when you need to stop talking and start doing, even if doing means getting off my super comfy couch.

On the flip side, if I want my kids and dogs to believe that I mean what I say I have to follow through on the good things, too. This is why clicker training works (or doesn't work). Havana does an about turn well, I click to mark it and I follow up with a treat or chance to tug. If I didn't follow up the click with a reward pretty soon the click would mean nothing and she'd ignore it. This is why many of the behavior charts I've tried with Bug have failed - I don't get around to writing a check or putting a gem in the jar soon enough.

And while Bug can't or won't remember to put her backpack in the laundry room, she's sure as shootin' going to remember that I told her she could have a tea party at her next play date. I may forget in the meantime, but if I said it was going to happen, then I'd better do it so she doesn't lose trust in me. Otherwise my promises to her, whether it's of a negative consequence for bad behavior or something fun to look forward to, will mean nothing.

Which is why my dogs and I were out walking across patches of snow and ice in a 10F windchill. Because I try to mean what I say, even if no one remembers it but me. It's good practice for the times when other people do remember.