For obvious reasons, I don’t enjoy being compared to a whale.
But, as it turns out we humans have a lot in common with Shamu.
Anyone who’s ever visited Sea World can attest to a whale’s intellect and beauty. Their eyes simply dance with intelligence and feeling, and when they flop their gigantic frames onto the edge of the pool, we all wish we were the ones doling out the hugs.
Sea World trainers spend thousands of hours working in order to showcase the talents of their protégés, and the affection between human and whale is inspiring. But then again, if you’re going jump on board and ride the hind end of a 10,000-pound animal, you better have a good relationship.
In a recent interview one Sea World trainer shared the secrets of a good rapport with her animals, and the correlation for parents and kids is striking. In fact, there’s a whale of a lot of similarities:
• Create an environment that is interesting, fun and stimulating. Most parents of young children find this pretty simple given a toddler’s propensity to bang on pots and pans. It’s a little trickier with older kids, but still, this is the easy part.
• Focus on the behavior you want to see repeated; don’t make a big issue if a mistake is made and set them up to succeed the next time. Ahh, now things get trickier. Parents have to actually stop and think about how to help a child feel successful.
• Fear of discipline has a dampening effect, which can lead to defensiveness or aggression. Call me crazy but if I’m in a pool with a whale, I don’t think I want him acting aggressive toward me because he’s afraid I might punish him. The root word of discipline is “disciple” which means “to teach.” If our methods of discipline create fear, children won’t learn in that frightened state and in fact, rebel against it.
• If the animal isn’t getting it, then the trainer simply isn’t being positive enough or the animal hasn’t fully developed yet. Yes, we may have to repeat our training efforts over and over until they get it.
• “No negative feedback” doesn’t mean allowing inappropriate behavior. We naturally want to do our best work in an environment that is positive not where mistakes are highlighted and feedback is downbeat. Keep it constructive and encouraging.
• Competency comes form the right mix of success and challenges, failure and encouragement. So it’s actually ok for our kids to struggle and even (gasp!) fail?
• Notice good behavior, ignore the bad. Easier said than done when a child is making armpit noises in church, but we’ll give it a shot.
• Don’t give fake praise. You don’t have to be a killer whale to have killer instincts and know when someone’s not being sincere.
• What you reinforce is what you’ll get. And what you focus on grows.
No one is suggesting that raising kids isn’t a lot of work and fraught with challenges and frustrations unique to the human species. But then again, who’d have thought you could make a 10,000-pound whale jump through a hoop with a human standing on the end of his nose?
(Charla Belinski’s column appears every other week in the Post-Independent. She teaches the positive parenting course Redirecting Children’s Behavior and writes from her home in Snowmass Village. Email her at Belinskis@comcast.net.)