A great model for parenting
Often when I talk to parents in my NYC therapy practice, I reference Cesar Milan, the Dog Whisperer. Yes, the Dog Whisperer. I know kids are not dogs and, no, I do not condone the use of those terrible child leashes. Yet it has shocked me, just from watching a few “Dog Whisperer” reruns here and there, how many of his tips ring true for kids and families.
Raising a child is once of the toughest jobs around and everyone doing it can use a little guidance and parenting therapy. Yet parenting experts and other guides that are specifically for the purpose can sometimes miss the mark. So lots of people tuning into the Dog Whisperer for dog advice or just for entertainment purposes are beginning to make the connecting to child rearing, also, and even the New York Times has taken notice. The show successfully translates some pretty heavy concepts, such as assertiveness and mindfulness, into a medium that is fun, accessible, and for those pet lovers out there, adorable.
Calm, assertive energy
One of the biggest points that Cesar advocates for is for owners to have calm, assertive energy. This helps dogs identify who is in charge as the pack leader and helps them understand who they should be following. Dogs also take in this calm energy and are happier and better able to follow direction.
With children, it is of course more complicated and the goal of good parenting is not just to teach kids how to follow direction. Yet kids want to feel someone is in charge, like someone is steering the ship. When there is no one at the helm and their caretaker is feeling insecure or uncertain, or if there is neglect or absentee parenting, it makes them feel very scared. This fear can cause children to become anxious or withdrawn or can lead to behavioral issues where they push back and really test limits, looking to see where they are. It also can make them feel altogether unsafe in the world, which is a feeling that can persist even as they grow up.
I often tell parents that even if you are not totally sure you are setting the right limit in the moment, to do it with certainty and decisiveness. You can reflect and think over your big picture parenting plan another time and adjust your behaviors accordingly. But in the moment, you want to show your kids an, “I got this energy”, so they feel safe and cared for, even if you are saying “no” to something they really, really want.
Kids (and dogs) are in the moment
Most people experience a whole lot of mind chatter. Both consciously and unconsciously, the past, present, and future is always swirling around us and it can be very challenging to be in the moment. Animals and children are especially good at being present. I often find that when I spend time with either, it helps to slow me down and serves as a happy reminder to be mindful.
It always amazes me to engage in play with a child and to see how freely they are able to come up with ideas, games, and stories on the spot. And if something upsetting happens or they bump their head and they have a moment of tearfulness, they have an amazing capacity to bounce back to a happy space in no time (barring any need for food or sleep).
When you are caring for a child, noticing their capacity to be in the moment is useful for both you and the child. For the adult, it can be a helpful cue to slow down. For the child, being as present as possible can help to prevent any previous or future stress from intruding upon the now and negatively impacting it.
Dogs are social animals, and humans are, too!
Just like other pack animals, humans are a social species. We crave connection, community, and closeness to others. It feels good to feel a part of something and our first experience of that growing up is being a part of our family- it’s our primary pack! And just like in a dog pack, every member of a family has a role and a position. When we are fulfilling our role and working well as a unit, all pack members tend to feel most secure and satisfied. When there is dysfunction within the unit- when a group member is struggling or when there is confusion over who is leading or following- is causes stress and disharmony. Part of why the aforementioned calm, assertive energy is so important for parents to display is because it helps kids stay kids and makes it clear who is in charge.
Often when I see an individual person for therapy, whether it be a parent or a child, we find organically doing some family therapy. If one member of the pack is out of whack it not only effects the rest of the family but it can be indicative of a bigger change needed in the family unit itself.
As parents and caregivers, we have the challenging task of setting the tone for the pack. Our values and action become the model for the young ones in our lives and something they internalize. Our energy and how we relate to the world trickles down, as well, and impacts how kids feel and behave in the day-to-day and beyond. Parenting certainly is not simple but Cesar Milan’s ideas help to make it feel more clear.