Monday, July 09, 2007

Puppies and moral possibilities

We just got a puppy. She is a yellow Lab (a "Dudley" version with pink nose and beautiful blue-green eyes) and her name is Bailey. And Bailey has me thinking about how the young grow to be "good."

Bailey – like any puppy and any small child – demonstrates a remarkable combination of needs that don't always – or even often – match up. First, she desperately wants affection, approval, and a sense of belonging. She opens herself to us, and almost any other adult she encounters. She craves the authority of the "top dog." She wants the security of clear guidance and good habits. She is not good when she is afraid or when the expectations are unclear. (OK, so I admit I learned that watching the "Dog Whisperer" on TV, but I think you can see it in your own puppy – or child -- even without Caesar's guidance.)

At the same time that Bailey craves structure and approval, she is forging her own sense of assertiveness and efficacy. She recognizes small children as others like her and runs to them (and at them!) in puppy-like games that have both a social and a self-testing element about them. "Yes, I am playing with you, but I am also figuring out who I am and where I fit in the animal kingdom I now inhabit." She wants her own bone and bowl and blanket. She likes her crate (as a place of security – see above), but on a daily basis drags her blanket out of the crate to a spot on the floor of her choosing as if to say "Yes, I need a space but I'll pick it." She needs a sense of efficacy -- "I can get it done" – within a context of collaboration – "you come too."

And then there is the sheer physicality of her presence and daily existence. She uses her body in new ways everyday and with boundless energy and eagerness. Her sense of taste is limited only by our discipline (we've made a commitment to feed her only dog food, but I wonder if that will go of the way of the "no TV" plan I had for my children), but her sense of touch, hearing, sight and smell are stimulated in infinite and variable ways constantly. Birds chirp, bugs fly past her nose, sun warms her coat, bunnies and squirrels offer quarry for the hunt. And then there are the physical challenges we put in her path. She learns "stupid human tricks" as much because it is a way to move in her body as because we are offering her a treat for her performance.

She learns so quickly and so willingly. But she must learn to balance the competing calls and lessons if she is to become a "good dog." And it seems to me that she needs clear and consistent direction and limits at the same time that she needs opportunities to test and assert herself and the space to flex her physical and "moral" muscles. What do these puppy needs tell us about how children grow to be good persons? And what are the adult actions and context conditions that will speed this development toward good? More on that later.


lzarfos said...

Puppies and children are very similar....they both have very basic, shelter, safety and physical touch....survival needs that are crucial to optimal physical development as well as the development of their psyche. I still remember the research study that I learned of in one of my first psych courses which indicated that monkies raised with metal mothers as opposed to metal mothers with a soft cloth covering them were unable to meet the emotional needs of their own young.

Mark said...

The first thing that I believe any child needs is security. This may be a quick response to their crying, a lot of holding, or even a blanket or pap for little ones. As with the Bailey's crate, this provides a level of comfort necessary for other learning to occur. Of course their is always a balance with everything. As a parent of three young children, 2, 4, and 6, I can assure those without children that raising "good kids" is not as simple at it may seem. Simply responding to a newborns cry, something that many experts will tell you is necessary to build their trust in a safe environment, is often challenging at 1, 2, 4 and 5 in the morning for the fifth month in a row when it is balances with all the other stresses in life that don't slow down just because you may be sleep deprived. When considering a security blanket, when is it appropriate to limit little Billy from carrying it every where he goes. These questions and the broader ones discussed in the other room, seem to me to be nearly impossible to answer as they differ for every child given their experiences, perspective, genetics, personalities, etc. I guess this being said, what we learn most from Baily is that bringing up good kids is in all likelihood the most challenging job imaginable. Above all else it requires a constant effort to recognize the "true" need of our children and our students for that matter and meet them within the greater confines of our societal values. What these are is a whole different question. Have a great lunch.

dougH said...

I think that the growth and the raising of a puppy in some ways can be very similar to raising a child and leading the child to grow "good." Adults are the providers for the basic needs, such as food and shelter, of the puppy, just as they are for children. They also give puppies love and affection that shows that someone cares for them, which children also need to receive. Lastly, some basic concepts centered around rules, values, etc., need to be taught to the puppy, but the puppy also needs the ability to make its own decisions and learn from the natural consequences that may follow. This is also true in raising children. I believe that children should be taught basic rules and values that as a parent, you would like to see in that child. Part of the child learning on their own and becoming more morally responsible is testing these rules and making decisions on the child's own, accepting what consequences may occur.

Carpe said...

Who doesn't love a puppy? They are so cute and sweet- when they want to be. And, it's so hard to say "no" when they want a bone and give you that special look. (Do dogs really have special looks?)

It's funny. In the last year, I have fallen in love with a dog and learned a lot about how I can (or can't) handle those kinds of looks or tough "no" moments.

With my students, it didn't take long for me to figure out how and when to say "no". You make the mistake of giving in once and live the consequences and realize what you have created.

Luckily, with students, you get a second chance. They move on and you get a new batch and try your best to avoid replicating history. But, with a dog, you have one shot.

I do not have children of my own- yet- but I have already began to think about these types of consequences and how I will handle these situations- especially knowing that I will have one shot.

I am sure that most parents struggle in these ways. What is interesting is the ways that some kids learn what's "right" regardless of the parental backbone.

Either way, and in one way or another, schools deal with the results of these parental boundaries.

I guess the question that I have then as an educator is: how do you deal with a multitude of ideas about how boundaries and value systems work in classroom or with regard to moral education?

Tamara said...

Isn't amazing how rules we set out for pets and children can have so much in common!

Reading your blog reminded me so much of the talk/speech I gave to parents at a 6th grade orientation night. The night was for those parents of 5th graders who were going to be entering the middle school next year in sixth grade. I spoke to them about developmentally where there kids were and about the stages of preadolescences and adolescence.

I shared that it was a time when they would notice friends becoming a major influence and dominant force in thier child's life. A time when their child may start pulling away from them and want more independence. They may feel that parents can not relate and don't understand. Yet, at the same time they are still desiring the attention form parents and wanting their approval. It is a conundrum of sorts that leaves both parent and children wondering what happened to the child they know and who am I becoming all at the same time.

Essentially I view a sense of space an independence as necessary for growth and development to move forward, but children need structure and support of parents in order to do this in a positive fashion. They need to know that it is ok to make mistakes and to grow from them. They need to know that is normal and that part of life.

Giovanna said...

I think the needs among children and puppies are amazingly similar. It seems as though we are less forgiving for the carefree and exploring actions of children because we assume they should know better even when they have not been taught yet. Attention, affection, and the allowance for guided or assisted exploration are attributes that create individuals. To direct, guide, and observe children's actions allows a child to be themself, but be themself safely. Many of the reasons children are overuled by parents and teachers is due to fear.

Debby Lynch said...

My 4 and 5 year old children, like Bailey are quick and willing learners. But when I was a long-term 6th grade sub they were not always "willing" earners. I believe this was because of their sense of past failures. I feel fortunate to work with younger kids who have less history of failure anxiety. Hopefully my positive influences will help fuel their desire to learn.

Clear and consistent directions are definate keys in moral development. At the preschool level this is so obvious. When certain kids come to my class from families where the parents are not clear and consistent direction givers the kids have a tendency to test the rules and their responsabilites much more than other kids. But when they find out that my directions are clear and consistent they quickly learn to follow the rules that are presented. Parents are often amazed that I can get their kids to do things that they can't.

I wish my next door neighbors were taking this class with me. They have deceided that their 15 year old son and 16 year old daughter (who is pregnant) are old enough to stay up as late as they want with their friends and party in their backyard unsupervised. And as a result have kept us awake until 2:30 in the morning several days this past week! Of course the parents are in bed with their air conditioner on and can't hear a thing. Even though I have spoken to them about it and they were very apologetic, the problem persists. These kids have no limits in this matter. My husband tells me they are still up running around at 5 am when he leaves (very tiredly)for work. On the other hand, my son who is only 9 months younger than theirs has a bed time of 11pm on non-school nights. I believe that my son had a better chance to be a "good person" because of the limits he receives regarding bed time. He still had the opportunity to request to stay up later to complete a task or finish watching a tv program that is important to him, but does not have the opportunity to create problems for the other neighbors who so desperately need their sleep.

Bonnie Hoover said...

The case of the puppy / master relationship closely parallels the student / teacher relationship. Many students need the security of rules and structure. They also seek to please the teacher by following these rules, by participating in class, by offering to help, etc.. It is important for teachers to find a balance between providing enough structure to create a productive learning environment and establishing so many rules that may stiffle creativity. Teachers who always tell students what to do in every situation do not allow students to make important decisions and choices on their own.
The Japanese education system allows young children to play with little adult supervision so that children learn how to interact and solve problems. Americans are so afraid of consequences (law suits, etc..) that we try to protect children from resolving conflict on their own.
Consequently, teachers should strive to provide adequate structure, consistency and rules but also allow students to make some choices and decisions independently.