What the Dog Knows About Parenting

With four kids who suffer from “selective listening,” it's not unusual that I'm shouting one of their names when I need some help in the kitchen, or to unload groceries, or move their backpacks. And okay, it's not really shouting so much as bellowing.

It's amazing to me how loud I have to yell to get attention in my house. I'm sure if I were sitting in the basement watching a TV show and someone was screaming my name the way I do around here, I would jump to the ceiling while calling 911 for help. Surely, someone should be in mortal danger.

But no. In our house, the slack-jawed children sit mesmerized — no, more like transfixed — by the dancing blue images bouncing out of the box. They don't move, they don't even breathe. They're glazed like a Christmas ham watching yet another rerun of Full House or The Cosby Show.

The only one in our house that responds when I yell someone's name is the dog. Every single time I call for a kid, Scotty the dog whines. It doesn't matter if I am shouting joyfully like, “Honey! Your grades came and you got all A's!” or annoyed like, “Who left out the ice cream that is now melted all over the kitchen floor?”

I may as well admit that, since we got this dog, I have felt he is always on the kids' side. When he was a puppy and my little one was three, he actually jumped on me once while I scolded her for writing on the walls. I think the whining is an extension of his protectiveness of the kids, and in this way, I suppose it's cute.

But really, I hate when he whines. It makes me feel guilty.

I feel like the dog is conveying anxiety. Like he's worried that one of the kids is going to get a big lecture, or have to do a bunch of chores, or get in some other kind of trouble, and he's passing judgment on me — like I'm too tough.

Of course, I know this is absurd. Before I make myself sound like a serious “dog person,” I want to be clear that I don't believe this dog has feelings to convey. Probably, he just hates that I'm so loud.

Then again, on the off chance that the dog has a point, I have to confess that whenever I raise my voice to the kids and he whines, I actually do stop and think about how my voice must sound to them. I know there is power in the tone of voice we take with one another. Even our most perfunctory encounters can be colored — good or bad — by the manner in which people speak to us. Notice this next time you call your insurance company or the IRS.

Also, Scotty doesn't do this when my husband raises his voice to call for the kids. Or when the kids yell for each other. Just me. In my irrational, guilt-ridden assessment of this fact, I conclude the dog believes moms have more power to inflict hurt and therefore need to be more careful when they speak to their kids.

Mostly when I shout for someone whose radio is too loud and who also left their shoes in the hallway, I just tell the dog to be quiet.

But sometimes, and more so lately, I make the trip upstairs or down, find the offending kids, and just talk to them without raising my voice. Like every other aspect of good parenting, it takes more effort, but it's less frustrating and more civilized. Plus, when I'm not howling, the dog's not whining.

Now if I could figure out a way to keep everyone else from whining. A topic for another day.

(Marybeth Hicks is a writer and author of the features “then again.” and “A View from the Pew.” A wife of 17 years and mother of four children from first grade to freshman year, she uses her columns to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families and the communities we share. Marybeth began her writing career more than 20 years ago in the Reagan White House. She also has worked in marketing and public relations positions in corporate and agency settings. Mostly, she spends a lot of time in her mini-van, where the real work of parenting actually happens. Learn more about Marybeth and her column at www.marybethhicks.com.)

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