What My Dog’s Kennel Report Card Reminded Me about Parenting
When my family traveled out of town recently, we boarded our dog at a favorite kennel that identifies itself as a “pet resort.” In spite of passing on the deluxe lodging option that included access to a big screen television, we still believe our dog received excellent care. As I reviewed the bill and waited to reunite with my cuddly pet, I was handed a “report card” assessing her personality and behavior during social playtime with other dogs. I laughed when I realized that the evaluation could have described my own children: “a little shy,” “very active,” “responsive to both handlers and other dogs,” and most notably, a “selective eater.” Yep, those sweeping generalizations apply both to my dog and my kids. Of course, pets are not human beings, and an animal’s genetic legacy may account for much of its disposition. The doggie report card, however, reminded me that no matter how nature and nurture coalesce in determining a person or animal’s actions, nurture remains a potent force when it comes to influencing behavior.
In 2017, we realize that our genes carry traits for our behavior as well as physical characteristics. Tendencies toward addiction, introversion, and even religious fervor might be braided into the strands of our DNA. Sometimes, as a parent, it’s so easy to write off undesirable behavior from our children as a result of their physical inheritance. A fiery temper or a tendency towards procrastination can often be traced through generations. Even when confronting our own undesirable habits, it’s easy to surrender to the forces of heredity and claim that we are powerless against our own hard wiring. My dog’s report card reminded me that the way we are treated and nurtured affects us profoundly. I can’t take credit for my dog’s ability to leap and run or even for her impish sense of humor, but I do believe that our family has tried to raise her to become as gentle and loving as possible.
In the first six months of our dog’s life, we were counseled to introduce her to as many different people as possible. Puppies are happier and better adjusted when they socialize with a multitude of individuals: children, people in wheelchairs, babies in strollers, and individuals of all different colors and races. If a puppy remembers that a bearded man or a person holding an umbrella was kind to her, she may not develop an aversion to hirsute humans in the rain.
As parents, there’s so much that we cannot control. Certain traits are as strongly embedded in our kids as their brown or green eyes. And there’s no shortage of ways we can exacerbate problems (I’ve managed to contribute to the creation of both finicky human and canine eaters). But, it’s encouraging to be reminded that we can influence much of our own and our children’s behavior. They watch us when we talk to the clerks at the grocery store, and they see how we behave when we drive. They notice our patience with our own parents and friends. They notice the way we value ideas and physical objects in our home. They know whether or not we laugh and find joy and gratitude. They emulate how we treat others and how we approach challenges. An old Yiddish proverb suggests: “Eyn mame dergreykht mer vi a hundert lerers– one mother achieves more than a hundred teachers.”
Moms, dads, and guardians have the force of more than a hundred teachers because we serve as teachers in every area of life. We can’t and probably should not attempt to shape every facet of our children’s personalities or turn them into little perfect robots. But we can love them with all of our hearts and share our deepest values with them.
As I made a reservation for one more stay at the kennel, the receptionist once asked again if the dog would be requiring a room with a television. “No thanks,” I answered. “She prefers to read- like her mom.”
Sharon Forman is a reform rabbi, mother, wife, and caregiver of an energetic goldendoodle. When she is not teaching bar and bat mitzvah students, she may be found driving her son to little league baseball games. She is the author of The Baseball Haggadah: A Festival of Freedom and Springtime in 15 Innings and numerous essays in Literary Mama, Mamalode, Mothers Always Write, Kveller, The Bitter Southerner, ReformJudaism.org, and Parent.co. She is still trying to figure out how to turn on the downstairs television.