What You Encourage in the Puppy, You'll Live with in the Dog
November 3, 1999
Once, when I was in my late teens, I was playing with a new puppy a friend of mine had just acquired. The puppy was playfully growling and biting my hand, and I was loving every minute of it. It was adorable in its pretend ferocity!
My friend's father said, "Correct him when he bites you. Don't let him get away with it."
I replied, "Oh, I don't mind. It doesn't hurt, and I think it's cute."
"That's not the point," he responded. "This puppy is going to be a very large dog some day. We don't want him to grow up thinking it's okay to bite, even in play. Even if he doesn't accidentally hurt someone, he might very well scare someone half to death!"
Back then I thought my friend's dad was just being a spoilsport. Now, of course, I know he was right.
The other night I was visiting with two children who attended the home daycare I ran until a year ago. The little girl is four-and-a-half; her brother is eleven-and-a-half. These are really charming, adorable kids. I would think so even if I had not had such a large part in raising them from the time each was two months old. But the little girl, her daddy's precious baby, has certain behavioral quirks that are, quite frankly, truly obnoxious. The most glaring is that she swipes food off of anyone's plate, any time she can get away with it. During daycare meals, I had to stand guard to make sure she didn't steal the other children's food. She was almost obsessive about it, and very sneaky.
This is not a child who has ever lacked for food or comfort. It's just that she has been trained to have a sense of entitlement about other people's food (and just about anything else). At home, the father insists that her older brother give her a bite of his food if she demands it (and she always demands it). Then, if she wants all of it, he has to let her have all of it. I won't even get into the awful message this sends the little boy about how he is valued (I should say devalued!) in his own family. Let's look at what it is doing to this otherwise darling little girl.
It gives her an outrageous sense of power and superiority over her brother. He has no right to anything of his own if she decides that she wants it. That's right--she's allowed to take his possessions out of his room, too, and assume ownership. But, my goodness, to let your child know that he doesn't even have a right to his own food--can you even imagine a parent sending a message like that?
It is no surprise that the relationship between the little girl and her brother has become strained. Knowing that she can get away with it, she never stops asserting her precedence over him.
Now, back to the other night, when I was visiting the children and their mother at their house. The mother had fixed a snack for the two kids. Each was given a sandwich and an ear of corn. The food on both plates was identical. But as they sat there, the little girl didn't even glance at her plate. She immediately scooted over to her brother's plate, and leaned over it to select what she would take. I reverted to my daycare persona and said sharply, "S, your food is on your plate. Don't you dare touch J's food!" She looked up startled, and moved quickly back to her own plate. She had obviously forgotten that I was there, but when reminded, she stopped trying to get her brother's food.
I got after the mother, as you can imagine. "Do you want your daughter to grow up to be the kind of person that helps herself to food off of other people's plates? Do you think that will make people like and admire her?"
The mother's response was, "What am I supposed to do? Her daddy let's her do it all the time."
"In the first place," I said, "her daddy's not here. In the second place, he needs to stop letting her do it, and you need to say so! It wasn't cute when she was two, no matter what he thinks; it's even less cute now--and it will be really creepy when she gets a little older!"
I wonder--does this man ever give a moment's thought to what his daughter will be like when she grows up, if he encourages such unacceptable behavior now?
Another example that comes to my mind: What about those parents that find it charming when their highchair baby throws food or dumps a bowl of food over his head? I can't tell you how often I've seen parents act as if their baby had done something special, and coo and reward him for being so precious and clever. It is sort of cute at a young enough age, I know. We can appreciate that cuteness quietly, though. We don't have to applaud the child, take pictures, and treat him like a star for his performance. Don't forget, that kid is going to be two, then three, then five, then even older. It's easier not to encourage the habit of making a mess and playing with his food than it is to break him of the habit once we find it's less cute than we thought it was.
Besides, it's not really fair to the child. If he's been rewarded every time he does something, but then at a certain age he starts being scolded or even punished for doing the same thing, he's bound to feel confused and persecuted. Even worse, he may form the habit of disregarding his parents' attempts at discipline, since he finds them so inconsistent.
Parents should remember that behavior they encourage in their infant or toddler is bound to be carried into the child's later years. It is a good idea not to encourage behaviors that you will find intolerable very soon--or that the rest of the world will find obnoxious, even if nothing your precious baby does ever seems obnoxious to you.