Ever since the Wall Street Journal ran an excerpt of Amy Chua's memoirs in early January, websites and blogs have gone berserk with opinions on the “traditional Chinese” style parenting. Alas, we Indians are no less draconian.
My childhood wasn't easy, neither for me nor my parents. Exam results and teacher evaluations were the unwavering focus throughout my growing up years.
The days when my report card had to be signed by a parent and returned to the teacher were a special ordeal. Forget good marks, I did everything else — forged Mother's signature (easier of the two), lied through my teeth, and accused the teacher of vendetta — just to avoid being punished. The whole system was built on fear and avoidance, rather than on encouragement and happiness.
In later years, I raised several dogs in the tradition that I had been brought up in. I house-trained them by rubbing their noses in their piss, scolding them when they shat, stepped on their toes if they jumped on me, whacked them with rolled-up newspaper and locked them up in the kennel if they were really naughty. Eventually, they learnt right and wrong, like I did decades ago.
Some years ago, I woke up late one morning to find Karadi, our German Shepherd, sitting in the kennel. Odd! Even the racket of the other mutts greeting us did not bring him out. Both of us called him affectionately, only to be ignored. Something was up.
Later that morning, my parents, who live next door, said Karadi had jumped the fence, and paid them a visit. He knew he had done wrong, and had punished himself! This carried on for a few days. The dog knew the price for being naughty, and was willing to pay it. Now what do I do? He obviously figured that the fun of being naughty far outweighed the punishment.
Clearly the training wasn't working. So, I did some research and discovered that my methods were archaic. Almost overnight I switched strategy to positive reinforcement — reward good behaviour and ignore the bad. If a not-yet-house-trained puppy does his job in the garden, he gets cuddled and praised, but if he has an accident inside the house, I just clean up. No anger, no shouting, no whacking. To my astonishment, the dogs learnt very quickly.
There are two different processes here: rules and enforcement. The first remains as strict as they always were; the only thing that changed was the training. Until they learn the basic rules in all its forms, I am strict — jumping on us is not allowed, neither is jumping on the postman or guests.
When you reinforce these rules with rewards (I use treats, affection or play), you are making it very difficult for them to disobey. Even our ‘un-trainable' Chippiparai now bows on command.
But, there is one situation when I negatively-condition the dogs. Venomous snakes are a danger to dogs on farms. We let a bitey, non-venomous watersnake, caught from our pond, bite the noses of our puppies. It is momentarily painful, but they learn a valuable life-saving lesson: stay far away from snakes. It's not a situation when I want them to feel happy or playful; I want them to panic and recoil. In all other situations, I reward good behaviour.
I'll let you in on a little insight: it works even on grown men! As in most Western potty households, we had our share of endless toilet-seat arguments. It was a no-win situation until one day, after I learnt positive reinforcement, I found the seat down, and a light bulb went on in my head. I gave Rom a loving squeeze, and lo, thenceforth, the seat was flipped down oftener than it was up. Besides, it is so much more fun to cuddle than argue!
(The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)