Ages 2 to 5: The “Dog-Training” Years
I’d enjoyed living in New York City for two years in the late 1990s while pursuing a Master of Music degree in Trumpet Performance at Manhattan School of Music. Tom drove in from Milwaukee during the summer break and spent several weeks living at his grandfather’s house in New Rochelle. He spent his days working as a waiter at a run-down restaurant on the Upper West Side, teaching English as a Second Language to Latinos, and helping me walk scores of dogs whose wealthy owners were busy making oodles of money, a nice chunk of which they paid us for taking little Fido for walks throughout the day.
Called the ‘Dog Nazi’ by some, the woman who hired us was quite a character. She was tough, a general of sorts, who called the streets ‘the field’, barked out orders and got extremely upset if a dog was walked even a few minutes late. She slept in a king-sized bed with her two giant flea-ridden German Shepherds and was always accompanied by a little three-legged poodle who used a tiny, squeaky wheelchair under its missing leg.
I was terrified of this woman. There were days when I would arrive breathless from music class, just a few minutes late to walk one or another dog. Emerging from the building with my four-legged accomplice in tow, I would anxiously glance up and down the street to make sure the Dog Nazi was nowhere in sight before stepping cautiously out on the sidewalk. Still glancing nervously over my shoulder, I would head toward the next dog’s house.
She must have had an internal radar system, however, because inevitably I would hear the eerie creaking of her poodle’s wheelchair, and she would appear out of nowhere, ready to take me to task for being late.
Everyone Loved Benjy
Despite her colorful character, or maybe in addition to it, she actually taught us a lot about dogs. One of the most applicable lessons to child-rearing came when I was walking Benjy, an adorable little chocolate lab puppy who loved to take the handle of his leash in his mouth and ‘walk himself’, prancing proudly past admiring throngs of passers-by.
Everybody loved Benjy. The baker on the corner threw him a hot, fresh bagel every time we passed, he was adored by every child-nanny duo whose path we crossed, and the Irish doormen of the Upper West Side all greeted him with a smile and a pat on the head. He was my favorite dog to walk, and I looked forward to seeing him every afternoon.
It was one hot afternoon while Benjy was walking me that the Dog Nazi appeared out of the shadows and chastised me for letting him hold the leash in his mouth. If her manner was harsh, her reasoning was sound. It may be cute while he’s a puppy, she explained, but when he gets older and stronger it will most definitely NOT be cute, and he will be almost impossible to train. If we make the effort to teach him the correct way as a puppy, he will be a pleasant, well-behaved dog the rest of his days.
The First Five Years of Your Child’s Life
Called ‘the dog-training years’ by some, the first five years of a child’s life are extremely critical in terms of establishing patterns of discipline, obedience, self-control, compassion for others, and a host of other skills that will serve them well throughout their life.
In case your hair is bristling with indignation right now, to set the record straight we are NOT calling children ‘dogs’. However, there are some similarities in the simple Pavlovian method of behavior modification used for training animals and small children.
Small children cannot understand and do not respond to a lot of lectures and reasoning. They are little beings whose job is to see how far they can push and test the limits around them, in order to learn a myriad of things about life. What will happen if I pull my sister’s hair? What will happen if I don’t share my toys with Jimmy? What will happen if Mom says ‘no’ and I still do it? Who is really in charge here, anyway?
When I Thought My Child Could Do No Wrong
After all of the trouble we’d had trying to carry our children to full-term, I deserved a badge for being one of the most grateful mothers in the universe. Carrying little Alex everywhere with me in a front pack, I found myself crying tears of gratitude to God when we went to the zoo, took a walk or watched a parade. I had found my fulfillment in motherhood, and our little angel could do virtually no wrong in my eyes.
Alex was about one and a half years old when my friend Dana came over one afternoon to visit. I called for Alex to come, but he was hiding under the kitchen table, refusing to come out. Embarrassed, I skirted under one end of our large kitchen table to haul him out, and just as quickly he scooted over under the other end of the table and hid there, giggling.
As I was crawling around under the table trying to corner my little angel to haul him out, Dana came into the kitchen. “Jen,” she said gently, “do you realize that Alex is being disrespectful?”
My Child Couldn’t Possibly Be Disrespectful
My first reaction was surprise, and the second was denial. Disrespectful? Surely not Alex! He’s just playing, showing his creativity in finding hiding places. As I maneuvered myself out from under the table to consider her words, I tried to look at the situation from her perspective. She was further along in the parenting game and was doing a great job with her children. It was true that Alex had disobeyed when I told him to come out. Maybe…just possibly…she had a point.
I asked how she would suggest doing things differently, and thus began a journey that we are grateful for to this day. As Dana and another friend, Jamie, coached and guided us, we began to realize that we needed to manage our little treasure right then, before he became a big treasure that would be very difficult to manage.
Our efforts with Alex paid off quickly and with treasures number two and three we took a different, more structured, approach right from the beginning. The general difference was that our days, and lives, became more ‘parent directed’, meaning that instead of reacting to each situation that blindsided us, we instead took steps to create the learning environment that we desired in our home.
Our Goal Was to Enjoy Raising Our Kids
What did we want? Creative, intelligent, happy and obedient little beings whose presence would be a blessing not only to us but also to others with whom they came into contact.
We also wanted to enjoy raising our children as much as possible, which meant our home environment needed to be peaceful, stimulating and full of love and respect. To accomplish that, we put a schedule in place.
I would wake the children up at the hour I set, which was typically between 6:30 and 7 a.m. If a child got out of bed before that, or came into our room during the night, we pulled the ‘Super Nanny’ trick of calmly and wordlessly putting them right back into bed, repeating this enough times until the child understood that he/she wasn’t going to win this battle, and decided it was easier to simply stay in bed.
Our Daily Schedule
Our morning routine would include breakfast, which we’ve discussed in the previous chapter, and an hour of interactive play time together. Then we would have ‘blanket time’ when our children were smaller, and ‘room time’ as they grew up.
‘Blanket time’ was a period when the child would sit on the floor on a colorful blanket with the toys I picked for them. They would be content to play with those toys for the time period I decided they would be on the blanket. When we first began implementing this at around sixteen months of age, our goal was just to teach the child to stay there, even though there were no walls to hold him in, until we said he could get off of the blanket.
When we began with Alex, we declared it a victory if he stayed on the blanket for five minutes. As time passed and he learned to focus more on the toy or a few toys placed in front of him, we were able to gradually extend the time to up to thirty minutes!
If We Can Train a Dog, We Can Train a Child
Here in Medellin, we have a sweet and beautiful chestnut-colored dog named Cookie. Our daughter Abby, now ten years old, has Cookie sit, puts a biscuit on the floor a few feet in front of the dog’s nose, and commands, “Stay….stay….stay…” as Abby backs away from her.
When she finally says “Come”, Cookie gets up, wags her tail happily and wolfs down the biscuit, licking her chops and smiling her doggy smile. Her whole body wriggles with pleasure, and it is clear that every doggy inch of her is happy.
A few points can be made here. One is that a dog can be trained to stay in one place even if there is no leash or wall to prevent her from leaving. In addition, when Cookie is finally allowed to get her treat, she is wagging her tail happily. Teaching her limits and boundaries hasn’t damaged her little spirit. She’s happy to know what pleases us, what we expect of her, and where the limits are.
The Benefits of Blanket Time
The benefits of ‘Blanket Time’ are many. Chief among them is the fact that the child learns to really examine and play with one or a few toys. Imagine the child who picks up a toy, immediately gets bored with it, throws it to the side, grabs another, only to get bored with that toy, throws it to the side, etc. You know the routine. Fast forward this ten years, and you have a child who gets the ‘latest’ toy, only to get bored with it a few days later and immediately demand the next ‘latest’ toy.
‘Blanket Time’ helps a child learn to be creative with the toys that you, the Wise Parent, choose. You’ve decided it’s time for your child to grow in their knowledge about sounds, numbers, stacking blocks, puzzles, coloring pages, books…you name it. You, the Wise Parent, provide a structured opportunity for your child to experiment and learn, yet with freedom to leave (after all, it’s a blanket, not a jail cell).
Your child must learn to CHOOSE to stay and focus on whatever is in front of him or her. The benefits are enormous. This will help develop focused, curious, creative children who will have the opportunity to grow into focused, curious, creative and highly productive adults who will be sought after in their respective careers for their creativity, strategic ingenuity and problem-solving capabilities.
Blanket Time Becomes Room Time
‘Room Time’, a graduated version of blanket time which we began to implement when our children were about five years old, is an earned freedom which came when they had proven themselves capable of focusing on whichever toy(s) we chose for them on the blanket.
They were now given the opportunity to play quietly in their rooms for an hour while mom made dinner, did laundry, cleaned the house, called a friend, took a nap, etc. The children could choose from a variety of activities, such as reading a book, playing with toys, basically doing anything that kept them in their room and generally quiet.
Imagine this scenario. Dad’s off to work for the day. Mom’s caring for one or more small children, while also getting the daily chores done. Basic things, like taking a shower, require her best efforts and careful planning. By the time 5 p.m. rolls around, even the most energetic mom is likely to be ready for a break. The hours that have passed seem like days. She has loved, disciplined, taught and formed little human beings throughout the day, and somehow has also managed to create a delicious dinner which is simmering on the stove as Dad comes in.
As Dad steps into the house, his children run to him happily, arms outstretched. They think he is absolutely the coolest thing they have seen all day. Dad, who may or may not receive that type of respect and honor every day at work, kneels down to hug them, and their embrace turns into a tickle-fest that leaves everyone breathless on the floor, Dad’s shirt untucked and everyone’s hair messed up.
This is pure joy for the father. This is what he has waited for all day long. He’s dreamed of throwing a ball with Junior, of playing dolls with his precious daughter. He’s exhausted from his long day at work but thrilled to be home.
Reinforcement Has Arrived
In this scenario, Mom is still in her sweat pants, has spit-up on her shirt and spider webs in her hair from going behind the basement couch to fish out Junior’s favorite toy. She’s fought and won a dozen battles through the day, and she’s lost a few, too. She doesn’t come running to hug Dad, eyes glistening with admiration. She looks at him and thinks one thought – REINFORCEMENT HAS ARRIVED!!!!
Dad’s on the clock, so after a quick hug and kiss, Mom runs upstairs, fills the bathtub with the hottest water she can handle, grabs the latest novel she’s been reading and settles in for some ‘Mom Time’.
This is all fine and well, but what happens to the relationship between husband and wife? Mom may get her much-needed break, but when she is relaxed and ready to converse with her husband, he may be crashed out, sleeping on the couch with the TV blaring while the kids are crawling all over him.
Or what happens if Dad has a job which requires him to go to work early and come home late? Maybe Mom and Dad can try to get in a few words when he gets home, but the kids are crawling all over both of them, demanding attention.
When Do Mom and Dad Connect?
There is an infinite number of ‘what-if’ situations, but the main question is this: When do Dad and Mom connect as husband and wife? After all, someday in the not-so-far-off-future, the kids will be off on their own and Mom and Dad will be back together in the post-children wedded bliss that is called the ‘empty nest’. If they have lost their connection during the child-rearing years, how will they reconnect after so much time?
We began implementing Couch Time when Alex was about eighteen months old, making sure to take the time right after Tom came home from work so that no matter what else the day held, we had invested in our relationship. We still do it to this day, twelve years later, and don’t plan on giving it up for anything in the world.
What IS Couch Time?
So what IS Couch Time? It is a child-free zone for parents where they can sit together on a couch in full view of their kids and love each other. They hug, talk about their day, maybe Mom cries a bit, maybe Dad talks about his trials and tribulations at work. They laugh, they share, and they remember why they fell in love and had kids in the first place.
Now any child worth his weight will get jealous of this time when his parents first begin to implement Couch Time. He will smile his most charming smile, throw his wildest tantrum, bring his favorite toy, jump onto Dad’s lap, try to get in between his parents on the couch…you name it.
He is a genius, and desperate times call for desperate measures. He’ll pull out his best tricks, and his parents will need to be ready for them. It will take Dad’s best efforts to lovingly but firmly remove Junior from the couch and place him on the floor, stating “I’m in Couch Time with Mommy”.
Fight for Couch Time
Your goal the first time is just to get him to realize there is a thing called Couch Time, and that it doesn’t include him. You may last five minutes, or if he gets bored and gives up, you may actually find yourselves with a delightful ‘date’ that you didn’t even have to leave the house for!
As Junior gets used to Couch Time, you can extend the time. Dinner can wait, mowing the lawn can wait, painting the garage can wait. What is important during the dog-training years is that Mom and Dad maintain their connection and remember that once, long ago and in a galaxy far, far away, they were two people without children who were madly in love with each other. Couch Time is worth fighting for and protecting. It will help keep your marriage healthy, and it can start even before your child is born.
Couch Time actually builds a feeling of security in your children. Children will often act out if they see, hear or sense stress in a marriage, which can take such varied forms as silent treatment or yelling.
A lack of communication between parents is a common cause of such stress. Think about the message marital stress sends to your child. ‘You are not secure.’ ‘Mom and Dad’s relationship is not a sure thing.’ ‘They might not really love each other.’ Couch Time promotes the opposite of this.