I Love Stupid Dogs
by Cathy Marciniak

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I just love stupid dogs.

The really, really great thing about dogs is that, the stupider a dog is, the easier she will be to train.

All dog training techniques rely upon one simple equation: Human Approval equals Human Love equals All Good Things. With proper encouragement, any puppy, even one who is as dumb as a sack of hammers, can grasp this concept. Training a dog is simply a matter of supporting the (mostly true) belief that making their Designated Human – the source of all food, warmth, tummy-scratching and treats – happy, is the quickest route to a full and satisfying life .

Most dogs, (who, regardless of their innate intelligence, and all folklore to the contrary are actually even more insecure than we are) will further extrapolate the (usually false) converse: Human Disapproval equals Absence of Love equals Starvation or Abandonment. The really stupid ones, bless them, will never know how wrong they are about that.

What I love about stupid dogs is that, although they are perfectly capable, as all dogs are, of giving unconditional love, they can never quite master accepting it. Train a stupid puppy, and you’re guaranteed, if not lifetime success, then a lifetime of sincere effort. The little idiot, perpetually in fear of offending or alienating his personal ticket to the good life, will never catch on to the reality that, no matter how often or where he defecates and no matter how many pairs of your shoes he eats, you are still going to feed him and protect him from the mail carrier and talk baby-talk to him when no one else is listening. (I didn’t say that the dog was the only stupid one in this relationship, did I?) If there is recidivism, he’ll at least have the grace to give you a fearful, guilty look from under the bed.

If only our children could be so easily misled.

The real drawback to training children the way we would like to train our puppies is that, unlike the puppies, the kids not only figure out the unconditional love thing very early on, they use it to their advantage.

If we’re doing the job properly, by the time they’re a year old, most children understand that Parents, also known as The Species Who Are Here to Serve Me, are quite nice things to have around. Once they’ve survived the separation anxiety of toddlerhood, they can take comfort in the fact that said Slaves – er, Parents – always will be around.

A few years or a decade later, they not only understand our constancy and appreciate it in their hearts but dial it up like old phone number. They have faith. They’re secure. They’re supported. They have Self Esteem and, oh, boy, do they know how to use it.

Although sometimes they grow up to be that way, babies aren’t born stupid: given proper encouragement, they can reach the (correct) judgment that our love is unconditional. Which means, as they to our infinite credit and frequent dismay learn, that if they lose our car keys, give their algebra teacher the finger, ditch classes, or hotwire the station wagon with a screwdriver because they saw McGiver do it on tv, we won’t, truly and actually, break their necks and kick them to Kingdom Come, wherever that is. And later, that if they take terrible risks or make really, really, really bad decisions, we still aren’t going anywhere. Our kids won’t even hide under the bed and look guilty when they make colossal messes because they know it’s just not possible to be so heinous that we’ll stop caring and ship them off to the pound. (And anyway, that’s against state public health regulations. I’ve checked.)

It may be that, for some peoples’ objectives, the value of loving one’s children unconditionally is highly overrated. The quickest way to sabotage a state of the art behavior modification program is to let your kids feel unconditionally loved.

Another way to destroy one of those things, which greatly resemble the training of a dog in spirit if not in detail, is to commit the sins of consistency and honesty. Doing what you say you want your children to do, and saying what you mean, are the beginnings of the end of even the most well-designed behavior modification (which for the purposes of civility in discussion I am NOT going to hereafter refer to as a “bm”) program.

Most of us, when asked, would agree that it is very, very important to us that our children grow up to be considerate and respectful adults. When we’re asked by our kids what, exactly, that means, we evoke some version or other of the so-called ‘golden’ rule, mumbling something about doing unto others.

Fair enough. But if, in order to instill or enforce these values – which, remember, are very very important to us, much more important than, say, getting a bed made every day or having adequate protein in our diets -- we do disrespectful, inconsiderate things like snapping our fingers in the kids’ faces or dangling sugar treats as rewards for clean plates, then what are our children supposed to conclude?

I’ll tell you what my kids would conclude: Mom has a major consistency problem here. Mom has finally lost her crackers. This is not doing to others etcetera, not by a long shot.

Let me tell you: my kids have lived with me nearly every moment they’ve been alive, and a good percentage of that time I’ve been caffeine withdrawn and sleep deprived. They can predict how I’d do unto others who tried to pull that kind of nonsense on me . If I had an employer who used the phrase “quick and snappy” and fired off my schedule in fifteen minute increments, I might, if I were in a civilized mood and more than an hour past my first cup of coffee, file a grievance. If I had a spouse who tried it first thing in the morning, I’d make Lorena Bobbitt look like a neurosurgeon.

To be fair, the kids might well also concede, under such a program, that Mom is less of a lunatic and life is more pleasant when they eat fish sticks instead of fruit loops for dinner and make their beds, but the resultant loss of self and comfort doesn’t seem worth the added convenience. I take a certain amount of pride in my children’s confidence that I will protect them from disrespect and verbal aggression. I’m one of “those mothers” who won’t tolerate coaches or teachers who scream. I hang up on telephone conversations with rude people. There are certain words which, I’ve made it known to neighborhood teenagers, one uses around my daughter only at one’s own peril. Personally, I’d rather have my kids’ teeth fall out than have to face myself with that sort of hypocrisy, or have my family sacrifice the very painfully-gained respite of home.

Even if you do manage to teach your children something with these contrived, complicated, programs, you aren’t going to teach them that making one’s bed and eating one’s fish sticks and being on time for school, are important and meaningful things. If they believed such things were valuable in the first place, they’d be doing them and you wouldn’t be using the silly program. The program will not, no matter how “successful” or effective it is, convince them that the desired behavior is important, for one simple, inescapable reason: It’s NOT that important.

Meeting a schedule and conforming to reasonable and appropriate expectations are nice. They save on dental bills. They make life flow more smoothly. They make it easier to get into college, to get a job, to get credit, to sustain a relationship with a vaguely mature person. But let’s differentiate here between the social value of a thing, and its moral value. The desired behaviors we’re talking about are not, not , not more important than being nice to the people you love. They aren’t even more important than being nice to people you don’t know.

No matter how much work you put into it, no matter how many charts you fill up with gold stars and checkmarks, behavior is just … behavior. It’s surface stuff. It’s never, ever, going to compete with character. Why do we want it to?

Following the golden rule, treating each other with respect and honesty, having your priorities straight, and letting your kids know that they are loved without qualification will all seriously mess with the Prevailing Wisdom of behavior modification. If you hope for any success at all with such a program, I counsel you to STOP doing all of those things RIGHT NOW.

If you don’t, I warn you: those kids will internalize their own values, and then it will be too late. You won’t be able to do a thing with them.

When a kid has his own sense of direction, behavior modification is worse than useless. If he’s grown a sense of what’s worth doing, all the gold stars and smiley face stickers and honor roll citations and attendance awards in the universe are not going to persuade him to waste his time on anything else. The very thought of trading in his dignity for someone else’s stamp of approval will be morally offensive to him.

This may, depending upon exactly what’s inside his internal barometer, be a major inconvenience, or an almost insurmountable obstacle to his functioning in the larger world. Knowing what he’s about, what he values, and what he wants, and accepting nothing else, just might screw his life almost completely up. Few burdens are heavier than an inability to compromise. If, as a young man declares, our materialist consumerist society makes him want to throw up, there won’t be much that the career services department will be able to do for him.

But, then, there won’t be much that the world can do to him, either. One thing can be said for those who are unresponsive to behavior modification: they don’t settle. Not giving a diddly-damn about the approval of others, has much to recommend it.

A young woman who would rather flunk out than do meaningless homework is a young woman who will not allow herself to be relegated to clerk-typist when she has a graduate degree in architecture. A young woman who wears blue spikes in her hair, not because it makes her father nuts and makes other people stare, but because she likes it that way, is not going to starve herself in order to look like one of the models in Seventeen .

A young man who would rather be sanctioned than participate in an intellectually bankrupt system, is a man whose mother doesn’t have to fear will ever be a member of the state legislature. If that same young man refuses to wear a tie on job interviews because they itch his neck and besides, he wouldn’t want to work for just any tightass who’s more interested in his appearance than his ideas, he will date the girl with blue spikes for hair not because the sight of her gives his mother a stroke but because she is funny and smart and makes gobs of money at the architecture firm.

The really, really irksome thing about people is that, the smarter a person is, the more difficult he will be to train.

Training , however, is not the same thing as teaching , and it is not even remotely related to raising . I am not training my children. (Oh, that it were as simple as all that.) I am nurturing them, for now, and hoping that by benefit of my support and example they will learn to take care and control of themselves. I know that, either despite my efforts or because of them, my kids are going to form and remain true to their own, probably sometimes incomprehensible, principles. I would prefer that it be “because.”

Don’t misunderstand: I know that this is not going to be pretty. My kids have more than the usual allotment of bad habits, irritating tendencies, and obnoxious precocities. They’re going to make big mistakes, they’re going to have regrets that will break my heart. They are also going to be hell to live with. There’s plenty here to modify, if a person were so inclined.

But I am not raising a couple of golden retrievers, here. Unlike dogs, who all have pretty much the same, easily manipulated psychopathologies, these are two particular sets of needs and motivations. The parts of them I’m most interested in can’t be changed, because they were born with them. They’re intrinsic. I accept, I celebrate, and try to work with, my kids’ uniquenesses, their fears and insecurities and loves and dreams.

I wouldn’t for a moment trade either one of them for some brown-nosing, externally motivated golden retriever-type who lives for others’ approval, does only what he’ll be rewarded for, and fears abandonment more than he treasures individuality. I’ve never liked people like that, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to be responsible for introducing two more of them into a world that already has way too many of them in the Registry of Motor Vehicles alone.

And if anybody has a problem with that, then they can just go train my cat. And make it quick and snappy.