Do I need to be a parent to help parents?

Much of my work as a psychologist is with children, adolescents, and families. Often parents seek my help managing their challenging offspring. Now remember, I don’t have kids, so some people–fellow clinicians and clients–have questioned my capacity to do this work since I lacked personal experience. Frankly, sometimes I wonder myself. But I had been a kid once, and I’d spent a lot of time around kids through the years, and I feel that garners me some credibility. And, to everyone’s surprise, sometimes my ideas work.

Parents often report that their teens especially are charming to them when they want something, but rude and obnoxious–sometimes even abusive–at other times. They give in to their teens when they’re “good”, after which the beloved progeny immediately resume their dastardly ways. These parents end up feeling used, but struggle to learn from experience.

Basset hound with burger, salad, soup at table.

I’d prefer kibble if you have any.

I wish I could tell these parents I understand their plight because I’ve had dogs, but I don’t think they’d take kindly to the comparison. In the middle of the night, cleaning up after a puppy who has peed on every rug in the house is nothing like changing the wet sheets on a toddler’s bed. Kids beg for video games or iPods or designer jeans whereas dogs beg for food, food, and more food. Both dogs and kids are impossible in the hours before dinner. Sure, our dogs aren’t picky eaters, so it’s kibble every meal, and we can leave them home alone from a young age. Dog parenting really doesn’t compare.

Nonetheless, I’d like to share a significant parenting issue that arose recently at home. After dinner, our dog, Jelly, started retiring to her doggie bed in the bedroom rather than joining us in the living room. There are two things that will bring her back out, though. The first is the sound of food (popcorn popping, the crunch of a potato chip), despite our never allowing her people food, however sincere her begging attempts.

Basset hound on couch.

I’m not supposed to be here?

Jelly will also come out to try to score a place on the couch, which we also never allow. Okay, maybe sometimes, like when we’re feeling lonely or sad or cold–keeps the heating bill down–but not often. But Jelly is a give-an-inch-take-a-mile dog, so whenever we invite her up, we regret it for weeks and refuse couch time diligently thereafter. When J. and I are both in the living room, J. is banished from the couch. But if I am in another room for some reason, I’ll often come out to find Jelly snuggling with J. on the couch. Curiously, J. often has no idea how Jelly got there. (We’ll save the importance of parents’ consistent boundaries for another post.)

As any parent might, J. got mad at Jelly the other night when she realized that her visits were so clearly motivated by self-interest. She told Jelly she felt used, and, like any good parent, she instituted a logical consequence: J. switched the living room bed, which Jelly has never liked, with the bedroom divan that Jelly had been retiring to. Severe punishment indeed. Miracle of miracles, J.’s intervention worked immediately. Jelly resumed joining us in the living room, even without popcorn. And I’m sure she learned her lesson.

Now who says you need kids to know how to parent?

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