Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Calling Supernanny! 11.08.13

The little dog takes two steps up the path, then stops to sniff at a bush.  “Come on, darling…” the man pleads weakly.  Another step up, then the dog plants itself.  “He doesn’t want to come in!” the man wails.  “He’s never been like this before!”  Then he sighs.  “Thank god he’s with me and not his mother.  She’d be in tears by now!”

This, I kid you not, was a scene that took place last week at my day job.  Our main problem these days is not with dogs who are aggressive, but who have been brought up with the idea that they can throw tantrums to get what they want.  If they object to something they will not have to do it.  If they have a meltdown they can use it to control the people around them.  The owners/parents who create this sort of behaviour are usually incapable of dealing with it; not only they can’t manage it or stop it, but they can’t even stand to witness it.  Do you think this a manifestation of sensitivity, kindness or love?  You might think differently when you have to deal with a dog whose nails have grown so long that they’ve curled over and are now growing into the pads, not because she was neglected but because “she gets so upset” and the owner “couldn’t bear to hear her cry” when she got her nails cut.  So the dog hasn’t been able to walk properly for weeks or months.  Yay caring sensitivity; what a win.

 Now, if this was happening occasionally I could put it down to random stupidity.  However, this is a common and growing trend.  To me most of those “issues” are not issues at all.  They are just no-brainers: the dog needs her nails cut, so you cut them.  The more you do it, the more she’ll get used to it.  The less you fret and fuss, the less she’ll think there’s something to fret and fuss about.  Hey presto, over a short space of time the dog is “cured” of her “phobia”.  It is, however, a problem that encompasses all aspects of behaviour.  We increasingly see dogs who work themselves into screaming frenzies over everything and nothing.  They are not happy with something, so they go from barking to howling to SCREAMING to throwing themselves about in a way that could really hurt them.  This is often the result of something as simple as not getting any attention.

The owners react to it by trying to reassure and calm the dog down.  Hey, fantastic.  So the dog was getting no attention, didn’t like it, started throwing a hissy fit which you now REWARDED by giving the dog attention.  Guess what’s gonna happen next time the dog feels ignored, hey.  You just TAUGHT the dog to have a meltdown.  Brilliant. 

Me, I’m a heartless cow.  If any of my dogs threw a stunt like that…  well, you know, they just wouldn’t.  They aren’t trained in the sense of being able to do tricks[1], but they know how to behave.  I don’t beat them and I don’t shout at them; they are happy, balanced, beautiful animals[2] who know how to negotiate most situations and stay out of trouble.  But, by Jove, they know what NOT to do.

So is this blog about what a superior dog owner I am?  No, not at all.  It’s just that last week, as I was trying to prevent a dog from bashing his own brains into a wall mid-meltdown, I was thinking how he reminded me of half the kids around my town.  The number of times I get told by parents “I can’t do this and that, because Little Johnny won’t let me” and I’m thinking jeez, Little Johnny is not yet three.  If you can’t manage him now, what are you going to do when he’s thirteen?  Now, I’ve never been a mum.  I have, however, been a stepmother twice, and no way in hell I’d ever utter the sentence “we can’t go to the shops because Little Miss won’t get in the car.”  I’m sorry, that gets filed under “things that just don’t happen.”  There isn’t a universe in which I would let a toddler dictate what the rest of the family is doing.  Again, I didn’t beat and I didn’t shout at “my” kids.  I took into consideration their needs and wishes.  I never let them walk all over me, though, and I never let their bad behaviour win a situation.  The first time my stepdaughter threw a tantrum I fireman-carried her kicking, screaming and punching all the way home, whistling to myself[3].  Her second tantrum was a muted, half-baked affair.  There never was a third – why would there be?  She got absolutely nothing out of the first two, and she’s not stupid.  All that hard work and no reward?  Meh.
 Oh, so this is a blog about how superior a parent I am?  Erm, no.  Because, still mid-dog-wrestle, I rearranged my thoughts and realised that no, he was reminding me of half the people around me in general, not just the kids.  And this is when I start ranting, because we have turned into a nation of toddlers – and brattish toddlers, at that.  I constantly see behaviours in fully grown adults that should have been knocked out of them[4] before they ever hit preschool.  But no, not only do we tolerate them, but we seem to have made them socially acceptable.

For instance, when exactly did “I can’t deal with this” became a “get out of jail free” card?  Have I missed a memo?  Are we now excused from grown-up duties because they are difficult?  Now, I understand that some adversities are hard to manage; grief, for instance, turns me into a big puddle of uselessness.  However, as a society we are now using the “can’t deal with” excuse/reason/nonsense to just waltz away from what are OUR responsibilities, OUR duties as adult members of this society.  A classic is the one where someone “just couldn’t bear” to look at their credit card statements, and now they’re in serious debt.  And, somehow, it’s the world’s fault, not theirs, because they “just couldn’t deal with it” and the world didn’t stop around them.

I’m neither completely clueless nor completely heartless.  I know that everyone’s got different talents, strengths and limitations.  However, when our limitations prevent us from leading a normal adult life[5], with all its requirements and expectations, I don’t think we should be able to use them as excuses forever.  We are all capable of growth, after all – even when it’s difficult; even when it requires change.  Alternatively, if we decide to accept and embrace our limitations rather than trying to overcome them, then we should be willing to take their consequences upon ourselves rather than farming them out to the people around us.  But no, you just wave the “just couldn’t” card and the issue goes away.  Your weakness is your strength – we can’t hold you accountable, because you just can’t deal with this sort of thing.  We just have to manoeuvre around you and pick up your slack.

Abdicating responsibility is only one of our culturally accepted juvenile behaviours.  Others are just as pervasive and vexing.  Here are my main bugbears:
  •  We throw tantrums, have meltdowns and express our displeasure liberally through rudeness.  This is apparently ok because it’s “real” and “liberating”, self-control and good manners being evidently repressive and not genuine.
  • We expect unconditional love, wanting people to “love us for ourselves”; this is regardless of whether we act in a lovable manner or not.
  • Like toddlers expecting every squiggle to gain pride of place on the fridge, we demand recognition for our efforts and qualities, not our achievements.
  • We have an overblown sense of entitlement.  Where our ancestors hoped that by hard work they would hopefully achieve a reasonable standard of living, we now expect it just because.
  • We self-certify, living lives of make-believe.  We award ourselves labels based on no actual actions or achievement.  (No, Nigel, you are not a “badass”.  You’re an accountant who trains Krav Maga on Mondays.)
  • We believe in happy endings.  We see anything negative as a shock and a tragedy, rather than as part of the normal course of events.  The truth is that life is a roller coaster ride of good and bad events, many of them only partly under our control. 

Growing up sucks.  I never wanted to do it and I managed to avoid it successfully for decades.  However, I never expected the people around me to act as grown-ups on my behalf.  I never abdicated my duties yet demanded that other people respect my rights.  The way I see it, you either take on the role of adult, with all its rights and duties, or that of a child, which is both freeing and reductive.  It’s your call what you want to do, who you want to be.  However, if you expect me to act in loco parentis because you have decided to channel Calvin & Hobbes, then be prepared to meet the stepmother from hell.

Everybody moans about the “nanny state”, but maybe this is precisely what we need.  Because a GOOD nanny doesn’t stand for meltdowns, doesn’t tolerate emotional blackmail, doesn’t reward bad behaviour and enforces consequences.  A good nanny helps you grow up into the best possible version of yourself.  Maybe it’s about time that, as a society, we started believing ourselves not only capable but obliged to deal with adult life.  Maybe it’s time we all start growing up.

[1] I got as far as “sit-stay-look stupid” with my youngest puppy. 
[2] Yeah, I don’t know who they take after, either.
[3] And it was a LONG way.  In a really posh part of London.  Through a public park.  I have no idea why I did not get arrested. 
[5] And yes, sorry, I unfashionably believe in “normal”, because I’ve seen abnormal, which is waaaaaay out there and really not a good place to be.

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