If you want to be a better parent, get a dog

You know those annoying people who call themselves their dog’s mom or dad? Not because they are trying to be cute but because they actually believe that their dog is their offspring? I used to enjoy making fun of them. That is until I met my sweet yellow lab, fell in love, and never looked back.  For years, I had no interest in dogs – I did not need the extra work, thank you. No matter how much my kids begged for one, I would not give in. I just didn’t want or need the extra work that I (correctly) guessed would fall on me. Then I lost my father to cancer. That year was tough on all our family but my middle child was having a particularly hard time.  The two of them had been especially close and, when he hadn’t smiled for several weeks, I felt he needed something to help him heal. Maybe I needed something to help my own broken heart too.

My only regret about getting Chelsea is that I didn’t get her sooner, before I became a (real) Mom. I think she would have prepared me for raising kids much better than the parenting books I read in preparation for and after giving birth.   Along this remarkable path of raising children (and pup) to the best of my ability, I have made mistakes and learned lessons. I’m sure there will be more of both to come but today, as I reflect on the journey thus far, these three principles have been and continue to guide me in parenting all four of my babies.

  • Daily doses of Vitamins D and E (for exercise) are the key to happiness

Getting kids and pups active outdoors may be the easiest step you can take to create calm, happy and, most importantly, non-destructive behavior in kids and dogs. As toddlers, my kids had their worst melt downs on the days I was too busy to take them to the park. My teenage son will still become destructive (messy room) and annoying (elaborate pranks on his brother) if he goes for more than one day without soccer, mountain biking, or any of his various outdoor pursuits. It’s the same with our lab.  We walk or even run her twice a day. If we short change her on this, she will climb all over me, steal food from the counter or act a little depressed for the rest of the day.

  • Sprinkle praise and rewards but never skimp on love

The puppy trainer gave me this golden piece of advice: “She has to earn her treats”  In our house, Chelsea does not get a treat or a “good girl” pat on the head unless she has done something such as sitting at feeding time or following along during her walk.  I’ve taught everyone in our family to follow this rule except my mother who uses “good girl” with a treat on hand as a way to get her to stop bad behavior. Grandparents are except from these rules. With my children,  I try not to give out empty praise or reward them when they have not earned either. I try to notice good behavior when they have gone above what is expected but I don’t gush over the fact that they asked for something nicely or take them on a shopping spree if they bring home a good report card.  I personally believe if I did that, I would be doing them the great disservice of not preparing them for the real world (for more on why I feel this way, check out Simon Sinek’s opinion on faulty parenting of millennials as well as Jessica Lahey’s insights on her parenting book*). However, when it comes to love and affection, I don’t skimp – even when their behavior is at their worst.  I won’t pretend this is always easy but it’s a worthwhile challenge. To me, providing unconditional love and acceptance will provide a greater sense of self-worth than almost anything else.

  • Quit taking it personally 

I learned this concept at one of the parenting courses I took. They even had an acronym for it – QTIP.  The premise is just like it sounds. Whenever we take our kids’ behavior personally, we get defensive, feel attacked, and lose our ability to be objective. If we take a step back and remember that many of the frustrating things kids do are normal and even necessary in their development, everyone will be better off. This mantra has saved me many times from turning into a raging lunatic or worse – a whiny victim. No matter how convinced I am that my daughter’s hunger strike is her plan to push my buttons, she is either not hungry or asserting her independence. Chances are pretty good that Chelsea is not getting revenge on me for taking away those socks by trekking mud on my freshly cleaned kitchen floor.   She is just being a dog and doing what dogs do. Learn this lesson as early as possible and you’ll save yourself a lot of grief.

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* Simon Sinek – Millennials in The Workplace, YouTube and The Gift of Failure , Jessica Lahey

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