I spent a few hours recently with my friend Sara and her 2-year-old son, Zach. It was snack time, and when asked what sort of snack he wanted, Zach requested raisins and a muffin. He quickly dispensed with the raisins, and when he asked for more raisins, Sara asked him to have some muffin before he’d get more raisins. And Zach got in a snit. After much complaining, he finally had some muffin, and then received more raisins, which he took with him when he got up from his seat at the table.
Sara told him to return to the table with the raisins or he wouldn’t get any more raisins, to which he again threw a fit before promptly putting all of his raisins into his mouth. When he finally sat back down and asked for more raisins, Sara reminded him that he didn’t get any more, because he’d broken the rule about eating at the table. Cue another fit.
Eventually snacks were all appropriately consumed in their appropriate locations and life went on, but it got me thinking about parenting of creatures both two-legged and four-legged. Was there a reason that muffin had to be consumed before more raisins were doled out, or why raisins had to be eaten at the table? Of course: Sara wants him to eat a variety of foods, and she doesn’t want any of those foods strewn about her house when she could contain the chaos to the kitchen table. But the polar ice caps wouldn’t have melted. The sun would have risen the next day. Zach’s health would have been unaffected.
But the real reason, at the heart of it all, is Because Mom Said So. And in both children and in horses, that has to be reason enough.
I was thinking of two 5-year-olds in training at my house. Both are owned by amateurs, and both are very, very good boys. But both are also 5, with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. And both like to listen to that devil from time to time, who tells them that going forward is not a requirement.
One says that he can go forward with no contact, or he can be round at a glacial pace. The other just spontaneously becomes a statue, one with a sour expression and swishing tail. We are not asking them to cure cancer, or piaffe 15 steps, or perform complicated arithmetic functions. We’re asking them to just freaking go. And they’re not having it.
In that moment we could cave and let them eat their raisins wherever they please, but instead we demand they eat the damn muffin and giddyup. Because Mom Said So.
The end result, for both Zach and for these two young horses, is that they hear “no,” and daily. They are challenged about small, non-life-threatening things, on a regular basis. And as such, when they hear “no” down the road, about bigger and hairier things, it will be less of a surprise.
I’m thinking about parenting a lot these days. My significant other is moving in and bringing with him his two kids, who he has every other weekend. They are 8 and 10 and hear “no” on a regular basis and, as such, are pretty delightful humans. But if humans are like horses—and I think that they are—they’re young enough to want to test the new authority figure, just like the 6- or 7-year-old horse who’s juuuuust on the other side of the naughty doofus stage with the trainer, but still likes to bust his amateur owner’s chops from time to time.
I find that horse trainers go one of two ways with their approach to discipline of both their children and their dogs: they’re either so neurotic that they can’t turn the Animal Trainer part of their brain off, and so their kids and dogs are trained within an inch of their lives, or they’re so exhausted at the end of a long day of animal training that they get home and cease training immediately, and so their kids and dogs are lawless infidels.
If my perfectly-well-mannered-with-a-full-repetoire-of-tricks dog is any indication, I’m the former. So I’m approaching my part-time-parent gig with at least a smidge of confidence. My dog knows when he needs to eat the muffin. My horses, eventually, figure out to eat their raisins at the damn table. How different can they be, really?