I recently came across an interesting article in the New York Times about the perils of “overparenting” versus “underparenting”. Among the challenges mentioned included parents who were overly permissive as well as parents who were overly controlling. According to the article, “the happiest, most successful children have parents who do not do for them what they are capable of doing, or almost capable of doing; and their parents do not do things for them that satisfy their own needs rather than the needs of the child.” In other words, parents who balance control with freedom as needed.
There is also a balance with regard to living with children and dogs. While being overly passive and leaving children unsupervised around dogs is clearly negligent, unless the dog is actually child-aggressive, it is may not be to the child’s benefit to prevent him or her from having any interactions whatsoever with the family dogs. Children need to learn how to behave around dogs, how to pet them, what they should and should not do, etc. Simply telling children that they can never ever go near any dogs has the potential to do more harm than good.
In my work with dog bite prevention education, I have run into many people with fears of dogs. With few exceptions, they tell stories of how dogs always want to attack them. It appears that fearful people are more likely to be attacked than people who aren’t afraid possibly because of the way in which they react: staring at the dogs, potentially screaming and running away, etc. In children’s safety courses, I teach children to “be a tree or a log” and never to run away. This is particularly difficult to teach to fearful children.
If we instead teach children how to properly pet dogs at arm’s length, allow dogs to approach them rather than approaching the dogs, petting under the chin instead of the top of the head, etc., then they will go out into the world with a clearer understanding of these animals with which we live in our communities. Avoiding dogs altogether is just not really possible in today’s society. They are a part of so many families, and increasingly, venues such as shopping centers, coffee shops with outdoor seating, and even baseball parks are not only allowing them but actively encouraging their presence. Trying to teach children to steer clear of all dogs would be akin to trying to teach them to steer clear of bicycles or cars; unless you move to a remote island, it just won’t happen.
The same goes for teaching our dogs. While it is not reasonable to expect them to put up with harsh, punishing treatment such as ear pulling and pokes in the eyes, we can teach most dogs to tolerate the presence of children and to choose to walk away when they feel uncomfortable, instead of opting to try to “defend themselves.”
All in all, it is a balancing act: teaching our children respect for dogs – and all living things for that matter – while supervising sufficiently to prevent mishaps. And for our dogs, more “micromanagement” may be needed, all the while protecting them from harm. I’ve said it before and will repeat here: raising children and dogs together is certainly more work than raising children alone, but the long-term benefits for all involved are worthwhile.