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.