Discipline Tips from the Animal Kingdom

You're probably aware by now that I am a lover of animals and draw many of my illustrations from them. Here's a relevant example that focuses on horses. Specifically, we can learn something about disciplining children by studying how mares handle their foals. I learned about this from Monty Roberts, who is the author of the best-selling book The Man Who Listens to Horses. I recently visited Monty at his ranch in Solvang, California, to witness for myself his celebrated methods of training horses. Monty began by telling me how he grew up around horses and used to ride them in shows and rodeos when he was only four years of age. A little later, he appeared in dozens of western movies as a double for child actors who couldn't ride. When Monty was thirteen years of age, he loved to observe wild horses in the deserts of Nevada. He would get up early in the morning and spend the day watching a herd with binoculars from quite a distance away. Gradually, he learned to decipher a language that is "spoken" by all horses. They communicate together with their ears and various gestures and movements.

The oldest mare, Monty told me, is the boss of the herd. She determines where they will eat, drink, and move. The stallion thinks he's in charge, but his only role is to protect the mares and to reproduce. When a foal, usually a colt, is misbehaving by biting and kicking his neighbors, the mare runs straight toward him. She will knock him down if he doesn't move in a hurry. Then she chases him about a half-mile away. The mare returns to the herd and squares her body to the foal while staring directly at him. She is telling the colt not to come back, which is very threatening and unsettling to him. Horses are herd animals, and they feel frightened when they are alone in the wild. A mountain lion or other predators could kill them unless the rest of the herd is there to provide protection.

Soon the nervous colt begins making a big circle around the other horses. All the while, the mare is moving in a small circle to keep her body squared to his and her eyes focused in his direction. Finally, the young horse becomes tired and begins to signal that he is ready "to negotiate." He does that by lowering his head, moving his lips, and grinding his teeth. He also aims one erect ear toward the mare while the other scans the landscape behind him for predators. After a while, the mare signals that she is willing to talk. She does that by turning her body slightly away from the colt and looking elsewhere. Gradually, he inches back to the herd until he actually nuzzles the old lady. At that point, he is accepted into her good graces again. It is not uncommon for the mare to have to discipline the colt by running him off several times before he decides to play by the rules. In the end, however, he acknowledges that she is the boss and he is subservient to her.

Monty uses this knowledge of horse language to break the magnificent animals to the saddle (although he calls it "starting" rather than breaking). By isolating and then staring at a horse as a mare would do, he can actually be riding a wild horse in thirty to forty-five minutes. You should see the process in action. It is something to behold.

Okay, so the horse illustration is not directly applicable to children, but there are some useful similarities. Mom and Dad are the authority figures, who must not tolerate rebellious or disrespectful behavior. When the child insists on breaking the rules, he is disciplined just enough to make him uncomfortable. No, the parents don't chase the youngster away, but they should make it clear that they are unhappy with the way he has behaved. This may be accomplished by a reasonable (but not severe) spanking in instances when the misbehavior has been defiant and disrespectful. Or they could administer a time-out period or other lesser punishment. Whatever the approach, the child must find it unpleasant and aversive. After the discomfort of that confrontation, there will come a moment when the child will ask, symbolically if not in words, "Can I come back again?" At that point, the parents should welcome him with open arms. That is the time to explain why he got in trouble and how he can avoid the conflict next time. Never during this process should parents resort to screaming or other indications that they are frustrated and out of control. Instead, the parent should demonstrate mastery of the situation—like the mare who stares intently at the wayward colt. A few quiet words spoken with conviction by a mother or father can often convey this confidence and authority better than a barrage of empty threats and wild gestures.

Although this understanding of discipline is fairly simple to comprehend, some parents have trouble getting it. If they are afraid to make their child uncomfortable or unhappy when misbehavior has occurred, or if they fear that permanent emotional damage is being done when they have to punish, they will not have the determination to win the inevitable confrontations that arise. The child will sense their tentativeness and push them farther. The end result will be frustrated, irritated, and ineffectual parents and rebellious, selfish, and willful children.

Book: Bringing Up Boys

By Dr. James Dobson

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