Issue #87, 5/10/2007
On the Training of Cats and Children
Family Court Philosopher
[Subject to active editing for the next day or two.]
Cats are a lot like people: They won't do what you want them to do when you want them to do it. If you call them, they'll ignore you. If you put out food on your schedule not theirs, they'll turn up their nose and walk away. Both cats and people have to do things their own way, and training them can be an exasperating ordeal.
Dogs, on the other hand, are easily trainable. They are so needy and eager to please that you can get them to do just about anything on your command, even when it is uncomfortable to them.
The only trouble with dogs is their utter dependence. Once you have trained them to follow you around and do only what you want them to, they become completely dependent on you to protect them. Cats are more resourceful. Left to their own devices, they can amuse themselves with a moth or a piece of string, and if thrust back into nature, they are more likely to survive. You can't imagine Fido lasting fifteen minutes in the Amazon jungle, but Felix might pull it off.
Training children and other humans is a lot like herding cats. They will rarely do what you tell them to. Give them a rule, and they'll find a way to sneak around it. Both humans and cats possess a bastard independence that can make training a nightmare.
So what's a trainer to do? Step back a bit and let them do things their way.
Cats and people don't respond well to direct orders: fetch, roll over, play dead. Instead, they have to find their own way to achieve their own goals.
The situation isn't totally hopeless, in that you know what a cat is going to do eventually. If you put some food out, and the cat walks away, there is no need to panic. He's going to be back sooner or later. He's not going to starve.
Some owners panic when this happens. "Oh my God, my Sweetie's not eating! What am I going to do?" So they go out and buy some other kind of food, and another and another, until Sweetie gets around to eating. What you have after a while is a spoiled brat cat—i.e. a Paris Hilton cat—who knows that she totally controls you and who has no incentive to take responsibility for herself.
Cats in this circumstance are almost always going to push you, seeing how many hoops they can get you to jump through at their command. The training of cats always runs this risk: that the trainer becomes the trainee. Cats and children are always going to test you this way, and the trainer must be savvy to avoid being manipulated.
The only tools you can count on are boundaries and rewards. For example, the need for food is a pretty clear boundary. The cat might ignore the food you put down for him, but eventually you know he'll be back. The cat might have to get really hungry and miserable before he gives in, but you know he will.
In the case of children, when they get hungry and miserable, they are going to cry and throw tizzy fits. Many trainers aren't strong enough to withstand this onslaught. If the kid throws a tantrum, in most cases the parents give in before the child does.
It is the nature of children to always push the envelope, and if the envelope stretches in response, then they are going to push it further. A strong trainer is going to hold the envelope firm. The child shall not be allowed to break his boundaries by throwing himself against them.
If he wants his boundaries changed, he needs to negotiate it in advance. And he needs to pay an appropriate price in this negotiation.
Which brings us to the reward part. There are always things that kids want and parents can provide that aren't essential for survival. Typically, the child asks for something and the parent gives it. This exchange is a natural opportunity for training. It is an energy source that can and must be used for something.
If the kid wants to go to Disneyland, you should never just go. Any privilege like this has to be earned. Disneyland should never be a gift. It should be the end point in a process that the kid has actively participated in.
If Disneyland is just given, it won't be worth much. If it is earned, then it could be the event of a lifetime. Of course, Disneyland itself is pretty hokey. How many times can you ride on Dumbo? The point is, if it is something the kid wants, he has to pay for it.
So many of these opportunities are lost when the kid asks for something and the parent simply gives it to him. Any instance of asking should automatically trigger a parental response: Okay, what can I get out of this? The parent names the price, and the kid is either willing to pay it or he isn't.
This is where the parent has to lay off and let the kid come to his own conclusion. "You want to go to Disneyland, so here is the price. What are you going to do?" The kid has to process it in his own way and in his own time. Tantrums certainly shouldn't work, and the parent would be making a big mistake if named a price for Disneyland but later gave it away for free.
It is like laying the food on the floor: Either the cat eats it or he doesn't. The cat may sulk for a while, but eventually he'll get around to making a decision.
However, if the kid is smart and has some experience in this game, he's going to come back with a counter-offer. This is good! It is a way for him to take your terms and customize them for his world.
This is where cats and dogs are different. With a dog, you just tell him what to do and he does it. With a cat, you lay out the general parameters of behavior and you let him decide how to implement them.
One of the most powerful training tools for cats or children is simply to wait. You lay out the parameters; he throws his little tizzy fit and goes off sulking. Your job then is to back off. If you put out the food and the cat ignores it, you know that sooner or later he will be back. Likewise, if a kid wants something, and you are the only way he can get it, then eventually he will back to the negotiating table. If he wants to sulk for a while, that's his business.
Sulking is not something we should be offended by or interfere with. The kids "attitude" in itself isn't really important and should neither by punished or rewarded. All the parent should care about is results.
Sulking, tantrums, pleading and theatrics are just part of the kid's testing process. All of them should be ignored. "You want something, this is the price, what are you going to do?" Only negotiation should get the kid where he wants to go.
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Page Started: 5/10/07