RSS Feed


Posted on

When my oldest son was two years old, I found him trying to insert a fork handle into an electrical outlet.  I explained why he could not do that, and asked him to return the fork to the kitchen.  He did.  He then returned with a spoon, which he proceeded to attempt to stuff into the same outlet.  I got smart and told him that nothing should touch the electrical outlet, at which time he changed tactics and allowed the spoon to “hover” over the outlet by 1/2 inch. Not touching, but causing me a fair amount of irritation and wonder at the difficulty of raising toddlers.  Unfortunately for my son, he then tripped and smacked the spoon against the outlet anyway.  When I imposed consequences, he was furious, since tripping was technically an accident and he had not intentionally struck the electrical cover.

That is parenting in a nutshell; trying to figure out what criteria are, and how to hold the line in a world which is never black and white but rather shades of grey.

As I look back on my children as toddlers, I now believe that my primary job was to keep them from killing themselves.  The good news is that it appears I have succeeded in this one task, since they are still alive.  The bad news is that what I had assumed, that my children would eventually learn to listen to me because I am usually proved correct, has not happened.  Nothing in dog training or learning theory prepared me for this preference of my children to experience repeated failures rather than taking my perfectly good advice.

The fact is that my children do not listen to me.  They do not hear my sage advice.  They do not value my wisdom, gleaned from making exactly the same mistakes when I was young, and I find this quite frustrating.  Sure, they listen when we have casual conversations, but the important stuff, where I am imparting golden nuggets of wisdom, not so much.  Infuriating!

Wherever I got the idea that children were mine to be molded…I have learned that this is not so.

Yesterday, for no good reason whatsoever, I had a parenting epiphany.  I realized that not listening and finding one’s own way may be essential for creating the kinds of adults who do truly spectacular things with their lives.  If my children listen and accept my experiences as the truth then they are handicapped by my accomplishments and they cannot exceed me.  A child who adopts my wisdom is surely impressive and advanced at a young age, but nothing unique as an adult.  Accepting my past as their future is simply more of the same; it has been done before.

My older son and I are very similar by temperament.  Neither of us follow directions well.  Neither of us seems capable of listening without thinking about how to do it differently.  Neither of us endear ourselves to those who are responsible for teaching us how to do the things that we need to know.  It is exceedingly frustrating to watch him repeat exactly the same mistakes that I made as a child, and being helpless to make him see why he is wrong.

I don’t want my son to grow into a follower, though on a day to day basis I often wish he would follow at least a portion of the time.  I would not want him to accept my past and make it his future.  I would not want him to become so accepting of the typical goals parents have for their children that he lost his stubborn determination to do things his way.  I’m trying hard to remember this, even on those days when I am convinced that he was put on this earth to torture me.

Like my son, I am often wrong.  I take perfectly good dog training methods and refuse to follow them.  Not because I necessarily think the method is wrong, but because I am temperamentally uninterested in achieving goals using the standard process.  I am more interested in how I might change those processes, because change intrigues me and being wrong strikes me as a minor inconvenience.  Yet on those occasions when I am right, I am sometimes really, really right.  Sometimes in the process of disregarding the known path we have a chance to discover something unique, and I am grateful to those individuals who have allowed me the freedom to do what I wanted, most especially when I was wrong.

When I teach seminars, I encounter students who are afraid to take new ideas back to their trainers.  They fear they will be ignored, removed from class, or ridiculed.  If the student is neither disruptive nor causing harm, it’s worth considering what their willingness to take risks might bring to all of us.  With time and experience they have the chance to make true strides forward, not only in scores or accolades but in other areas that hold value.

When you have a student who is making you crazy with their wild ideas, unrelenting questions, a stubborn refusal to simply cooperate, or an apparent willingness to fail repeatedly while exploring their own path, maybe it is best to swallow your irritation and find a way to support them.  Yes, these students are frustrating and yes, it appears they are wasting your time.  On the other hand, breaking from tradition and what we believe to be true might just allow them to stumble on something really interesting and unique.  Rather than talking about them behind your hands, rolling your eyes in disgust, or ridiculing in an effort to force conformity and reaffirm our importance, maybe a better answer is to watch with silent consideration.  Help them pick up the pieces when the blunders are impressive and keep the channels of communication and support open.  Because one day, their failures just might allow them to gain the experience and wisdom to break through what we had believed to be the pinnacle and go where no one has been before.    Our students do not exist to reaffirm our methods; they are individuals with a right to their own ideas, even when we are sure they are wrong.  Your tolerance allows for their growth.  You can choose to give them that gift.

I am trying hard to approach my son differently, because I’m starting to believe that when he finds his way, he’ll be more than right, and he’ll accomplish something which is more than good.  Rather than meeting the goals set by others, I’d like to believe that he is going to do something or become someone who is truly special and unique. Rather than punishing him for his refusal to follow a known path, I’m going to try and be there to pick him up when he makes his worst mistakes.  When the future comes and we look back on the past, I want to believe that he’ll count me as part of his team rather than a hindrance to his journey.

What a gift we give when those who rely on us are allowed to be wrong without judgment.  Supporting excellence is impressive, but supporting failure leaves room for spectacular.

And on a totally unrelated note:  Come meet the talented instructors for the June 1st session at Fenzi Academy!

About dfenzi

I'm a professional dog trainer who specializes in building relationship in dog handler teams who compete in dog sports. My personal passions are Competitive Obedience and no force (motivational) dog training. I travel throughout the world teaching seminars on topics related to Dog Obedience and Building Drives and Motivation. I own Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, a comprehensive online school for motivational training of performance sport dogs.

22 responses »

  1. I had to laugh. I’m not an experienced dog trainer yet, but I AM the parent of two boys and an experienced horse trainer. I’ve always said that everything I know about raising kids, I learned from my horses. …And just wait until it’s cars you’re talking to your sons about instead of electrical outlets! 😉

  2. pauline hosenfeld

    my heart goes out to you as another mother, and the dog trainer in me says thanks for another of your keen insights into dog training. Spectacular indeed!

  3. Anne Robinson

    One of the best things I managed to do as a parent when my kids were pre-teens and teens was to teach them to figure out the various consequences of their actions. Telling them they were making a mistake and to do it my way, of course, never worked for me, either. So, I headed off many points of conflict by simply sitting down and asking, “If you did this, what might happen? What else could you do and what might be the consequences of that?” Especially with my son, we went through lots of scenarios for certain things he wanted to do, and then I said, “Well, then, you seem to have an idea of the consequences, so it’s up to yo to choose.” He usually chose the better way and of course, it was his decision, not mine.

    I also reminded him that for some things, I would definitely say NO if I thought he would put himself in danger. As a parent to a teen, I wasn’t his dictator; I was his safety net. We usually negotiated a deal for those other things, though, taking into consideration the consequences of different actions on his part..

    For instance, he had a friend whose parents were involved in drug dealing, and I did not want him hanging out with this kid. I explained that he was in danger if he did so because by implication, he would be seen as part of that scene, and if the kid got in trouble or even had his life threatened, so would my son. I did NOT tell him he couldn’t see the kid; after all, how well would that have worked? Instead, I said he certainly could be friends, but could only see him here at home or at school, not in the kid’s neighborhood or hanging out anywhere else. He understood the various consequences (picked up by police, drive-by shootings) (I really emphasized the dangerous aspect of hanging out with a druggie) and actually did keep himself safe. The frienddhip didn’t last long, but I think it would have been a great drawing card if I had forbidden him to see the kid and he would have been obligated to rebel.

  4. Great article! From a dog training perspective, I do tend to shy away from instructors who spout that their way is the only way to train a dog. I am exceptionally lucky to have an obedience instructor/helper who lets me train the way I choose to train. His main requirement is that I have a reason for why I am doing something. It is great, as he will ask why I did “something”, and I am forced to think through my training and explain why I am approaching the training in that way. Sometimes I have a good answer and it makes sense when spoken out loud. Sometimes, when I try to explain, I realize that my way may not have been done with thought. On the flip side, I have been in classes and there are many programs in my area (agility and obedience) that require you to train their way or you cannot participate in the program. While the opportunity to train may be a great one, I have chosen not to participate as my own views on training are being negated in these group situations. I might not progress as quickly as some or train with the traditional or currently in “vogue” methods, but I am having a good time training my dogs in a way that is satisfying to me. So far, my dogs seem to be pretty happy with what we are doing, so all is well!

    Thanks for the article!

  5. Connie Kaplan

    Loved this post! Only a comment on the 1st paragraph…what I say to that is that’s what you get for having boys! I read this out loud to my husband and we laughed because he has more than used up 9 lives….

  6. Okay… that’s a quote for the ages… “Supporting excellence is impressive, but supporting failure leaves room for spectacular.” I would love to see more trainers be able to … at least tolerate other methods that their students bring into training. Supporting them would be great. In so many areas of life, not just dog training, I see so many people stuck in their ways. And I’m not one to argue, so I just go off and do my own thing now. 🙂

    Excellent post Denise, one of my favorites. 🙂

  7. Wonderful comments
    Made my day as someone who has refused to color between the lines for 65 years
    in fact I don’t even see the lines.
    The path less trodden is not for everyone , but those who do take this path are in awe
    not only at what they find but also the incredible people they meet along the way.
    As I said it is not for everyone and is filled with echoes from childhood , “it may be alright for you but what would happen if everyone behaved like you.
    My response always was they won’t because not everyone is like me

  8. You are so awesome! To realize that you want more for your children than to have your past as their future… to apply this thinking to dog training is certainly, to be totally cliche, outside the box…

  9. I loved your post. While all reading may not have the same beliefs as I do there is a scripture that describes your thoughts exactly. “train up a child in the way he is bent”. It took me a LONG time to truly understand this concept. Until I began gardening in earnest in fact! Trees and plants have to some extent a natural way they are going to grow. No matter how much you trim and prune them they are going to go in a certain direction. That is what I learned to let my child do, let him grow as a person the way he is “bent”, my son is who he is no matter what I did to do as you mentioned, give sage advice. He is 27 and he STILL doesn’t think I am wise enough lol. What I could do though was give him the skills and knowledge to temper his rough spots, grow his strengths and understand his weaknesses. And then I just had to let Billy, be Billy. He is a fine adult now, married with amazing kids. I think I did ok.

  10. Thank you for some of the wisest words that has been written about learning & maturing process – and the life lesson of how to become a parent & a human being. 🙂

  11. Mary Alexander

    This couldn’t have been sent to me at a better time. Thank you! They are truly words of wisdom.

  12. Here’s to the rebels… 🙂
    As another ‘independent spirit’, this is why I’ve never taken a group dog training class. Much more fun to experiment and find my own way. Which is why I love the format of your online classes, and how it encourages individual study!

  13. Great post… I love your seminars and would definitely say that your approach to training goes beyond the “ordinary” and the dogs in my life are often the ones who benefit from the knowledge you share. Having a reactive dog, I have long known that there was no one “right way” even though others have tried at times to strongly encourage me to conform. More importantly, as a mother-to-be (of my first human child this time!), I think I needed this advice right now… Thank you for always sharing your insight!

  14. Children have so much to teach us, mine taught me a lot! Wonderful post, thank you for sharing. Your epiphanies Are the best posts! Parchment paper was a funny one, this one is a heart post! The last sentence was awesome and I will be sharing!

  15. Melissa Bishop

    Thank you for this! I needed to read it!

  16. BRAVO, Denise!!! I have no children, but I do teach and will take your post to heart. Excellence is great, but spectacular is … well, spectacular! Here’s to my learning to allow my students to be just that, spectacular!

  17. Not a mom, never been a mom, but keeping toddlers and puppies safe from the perils of outlets and stairs is a primary responsibility. So you hit that nail on the head! God bless the moms and dads of the worlds, they are allowing our future to become who they will be in our world.

  18. “Supporting excellence is impressive, but supporting failure leaves room for spectacular.”

    Wow I think that will be my quote of the day that is awesome!

  19. What a spectacular post! As a teacher myself I want to support students in just the way you have so eloquently described. One of the places that I teach is as an assistant in a puppy class in my local kennel club. Sometimes I am really disheartened by some of the compulsion methods that the lead teacher demonstrates. I often see some students resisting doing these particular exercises and trying to do them a different way that is more positive and does not require putting pressure on their puppy. Usually, the lead teacher will privately criticize these students to the other assistant and me. I have decided two things based on contemplation of this lovely post you wrote.

    1) I am going to print this out and share it with the people that I teach with in the puppy classes. Hopefully, they will understand my new attitude towards students who chose to experiment with the exercises rather than just try to duplicate the exercises exactly as they are demonstrated by the lead teacher.

    2) I have seen some spectacular results from the dog/handler teams in the puppy classes when they try different things. I’m going to actively praise them for their experimentations, for the trust I see them developing with their dogs, and for having the courage to choose positive methods of interacting with their puppies. (I have been avoiding doing this so as not to “rock the boat” with the lead teacher.)

    Thanks so much for the inspiration!!

    BTW, I am enjoying taking your online courses as an observer (I’m on my second one). We don’t accomplish things very quickly with my puppy because I have fibromyalgia and that limits me in some ways. However, I do train a little most every day in short bursts and have seen the joy growing in our practice sessions from following your example as your dogs’ cheerleader and from the fun exercises I have learned from the online courses.

    I really appreciated the SUPER recent video with 2 year-old Lyra where you showed her making a coupld of mistakes on the go-out and around during heeling practice; the way you handled her mistakes was inspiring! I am also motivated by all the simple but powerful rewards you worked in for her. You are a great Mom and a truly SPECTACULAR teacher!


    Trish Koontz

  20. Will you be my mom?😍


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: