“Ground tie” your child

Ed demonstrates the power of suggestion:

This one takes a lot of discipline, but pays off.

I was watching and old spaghetti western and saw the cowboy jump from his horse and place the reins on the ground.  The horse knows not to move from that spot.

I decided to try and teach my son the same trick.  I picked out a knot hole on the living room coffee table and instructed him to put his finger on the spot. I told him it was very important, and that he was not allowed to talk or move around until I released him.  He learned quickly, and treats were always part of the learning process.

One day while checking out at our local grocery store, Joshua was a bit fidgety as I was trying to pay for the groceries.  I located a screw on the side of the counter and told him to put his finger on it and don’t move.

Josh did as instructed to the awe of everyone watching.  I then said the magic word “release” and he walked out the store with me knowing there was an ice cream in his future.


  1. Duane says

    ummm…I was interested until you said the “magic word”. Why not “Come here, boy?” or “Heel?” If you train him like an animal you might as well treat him like one. Why not a leash?

  2. gg says

    I completely agree with Duane! Except I thought this through the article, I’m sorry to say, I was appalled!

  3. MamaBear says

    I say, to each his own. If it works for Ed I don’t see a thing wrong with it. I’d much prefer to see that at the grocery store than a frusterated parent yelling at their child.
    I think suggesting he treats his child like a pet is a bit inflammatory.

  4. adrienne says

    As long as the child is content with the game and the parent isn’t doing it with a strong-arm authoritarian mentality, I don’t think it does harm.

    It’s actually pretty funny, and I bet Josh enjoyed the attention as well as the ice cream.

  5. gg says

    I think “pet training” comes to mind because of the language used, like: “treat” and “release”. If you were to say you gave the child a reward (especially a non-food reward), and then told the child “ok you can go now” it would look less like training and more like parenting.

    But you are right, to each his own – I am in no way perfect when it comes to parenting – no one is!

  6. Tanya says

    I agree with Mama Bear. Also, aren’t we ‘training’ our kids every day? Whether it’s how to put on shoes or eat with a spoon or just socialize with other people.

    The parent is not humiliating or bullying the child. He’s trying to make it a game and involving the child instead of just telling him, Stay there and don’t move.

    And when a kid asks for something don’t we also always say, “What’s the magic word?” and they’re supposed to respond, “Please.”

  7. Marcy says

    He didn’t say he does anything abusive, humiliating or bullying. He just used some conditioning to get the desired behavior. I agree, Tanya. We’re constantly training our kids.

  8. Pam says

    Having recently become the owner of two puppies, I can say I have been completely amazed by the similarities in parenting a young human (i.e. teaching them how to behave, among other things), and training a young dog (i.e. teaching them how to behave, among other things). I don’t see anything at all wrong with Ed’s hack. I wouldn’t advocate using this technique at home to keep the child quiet and out of your hair, but in public, when you need a kid to focus their attention for a short time for their own safety, I think it’s a great idea.

  9. Zombie Dad says

    Before our daughter came along, my wife put in a lot of time and effort into training our lab mix, Maggie. She’ll be the first to tell you that a lot of what you learn from obedience school (constant repetition, positive reinforcement and consistency between the authority figures) carries over into child rearing.

    Honestly, I thought it was a pretty amusing parent hack to pull out of an old Western. Now, let’s see who can find a parent hack from a Star Trek episode!

  10. Karen says

    What he did in the grocery store sounds to me kind of like a “time out,” as they were originally envisioned. That is, the child was not being punished; his behavior was being brought back into the realm of the appropriate. Sounds like a neat idea to me, if not for all parents or all children. I’m interested in how old Joshua was when Ed started teaching him this method of self-control, and how old he was at the time of the grocery store event.

  11. sara says

    yuck. Just because a child can be trained like a dog doesn’t mean they should be. If that’s the kind of short cut we’re after when we talk about hacks, then why not take the ultimate out and just get a dog.

    I might want a dog to obediently obey me without pause, but I do not want this quality instilled into my child. I’ll take the hassle and headache if it means I’m raising a strong, critical thinking individual who doesn’t blindly obey, and who can question my motives and intentions. I want a child who is less interested in pleasing me, or getting treats, and more interested in understanding the reasons and motives behind what I’m asking. In the long run, I want my child to question authority, not blindly obey it.

  12. Awesome Mom says

    I do something similar with my eldest son. When we are going to the store I need him to stay by the car while I get his younger brother out of his car heat. I place his hand on the bumper of the car and tell him that he needs to stay there. It works quite well and if he starts wandering I can see him immediately and let him know that he needs to get back to his spot while I finish getting his brother out of the car. I don’t give food rewards but I do praise him lavishly when he complies. I have had mother come and compliment me on his behavior and it keeps him safe from other cars.

  13. Erica says

    I’m not keen on this ‘hack’ either, I like Erin to know when to stop something – sometimes it only takes a look, I think its the ‘release’ bit that I felt most uneasy about…

  14. marcy says

    Sara, there are certain times that there are non-negotiables. In this case, a child being right where you tell them while you finish conducting business in a store. It’s not a good idea for them to wander off, or, if in the cart, fidget out of the seat (I try to keep a hand on the peanut at all times, but I do have to get my wallet, work the pin pad, etc.) As Awesome Mom points out, this hack is entirely practical to ensure safety in a lot of different ways.

    I’d rather have parents look down on me for using this hack than have my child get hit by a car, fall from the cart or worse.

  15. sean says

    when my youngest was born, his older brother was about 3. one of the first multitasking problems i ran into was getting the baby strapped into the car seat while his older brother waited for me to put him in.

    all of this taking place, usually, in some store’s busy parking lot – the most chaotic and dangerous place for children to be.

    so i told big brother to put his finger on the car right next to the open door where i was strapping in his brother. he understood this much more quickly than, “dont move”, and it was more easily applied than telling him to put his finger in the loop of my carpenter jeans.

    this took very little training (basically: none), and, now, almost 4 years later, both kids know to put their hands on the car whenever they’re not holding my hands in the parking lot.

    this is obviously for small children. i dont want my 4-yr-old questioning authority. not yet. he’ll figure that out for himself, i dont think we need to teach our kids to question authority, and when they do get to that point, the authority they will first question is us, as the parents, which gives us the best opportunity to guide them during that time.

    i get the point about not wanting our children to blindly obey authority, but at this age, they arent able to make those kinds of decisions, and this method simplifies the instructions that, for that given situation, we need them to follow.

  16. Kevin says

    You have to use the proper training based on the readiness level of the child. My 2 year old doesn’t have enough cognitive ability (or experience) to question my authority so blind acceptance is preferred.
    She’s getting to the point now when I can give her options. (i.e. “You can either put your toys away now or go to time out first. It’s your choice.”)
    Eventually, she’ll start reasoning for herself and can negotiate regarding my requests. (i.e. “Dad, it will only be light outside for another half-hour. Can I play outside first and then clean out the cat boxes?”)
    Finally, if I’ve done my parenting job correctly, she won’t need any direction from me and I can go into retirement.

    Pets, on the other hand, never move out of stage 1.

  17. Jacqui P says

    I think this is brilliant and that Sara who thinks she’d rather have a “critically thinking” child need to re-evaluate herself. Do you think a child throwing a tantrum or misbehaving in the middle of a store is a time of “critical thinking”. Honestly…kids do need to know how to follow directions, and behave in public and respect their parents and other adults. There is a time and place for critical thinking and questions and it is NOT while I’m trying to pay for groceries.

  18. Parent Hacks Editor says

    Just thought I’d jump in here with a reminder about the purpose of Parent Hacks: to present tips that worked for parents in their own families. Ed’s tips (there are more to come) may or may not work for you, but they certainly worked for him, and bring up a wonderful opportunity to think about how we “teach” and “train” our kids. When I first read this tip, I was surprised as well, and I know it wouldn’t work for me (for various reasons). But I relish hearing about it, as I relish the discussion going on here. As long as it stays respectful, have your say!

  19. Mark says

    I thought I invented it. When our young kids got out of the car, I’d say “hands” and they would place both hands on the car bumper. It kept them from wandering into the parking lot and kept fingers away from closing doors.

  20. SLR says

    Having reasonable, age-appropriate expectations of our kids is also critically important in parenting. It would be ludicrous for me to expect my toddler to have critical thinking skills or the ability to question my motives. For her safety she does need to recognize my authority. There’s plenty of time to teach her critical thinking and about questioning authority when she is developmentally ready.

  21. stepan says

    Great hack. My daughter (2.5yr) loves emulating our dogs. When we cross the street and make them sit, she wants to be told to “sit” as well. She’ll grab a toy with her mouth (one of hers, not the dogs’) and wants us to tell her to “drop it”.

    BTW, the lessons I’ve learned at obedience classes (yeah, sounds horribly authoritarian – it’s not) with my dogs have served me well understanding my child. For one, these classes are much more about educating the pet owner rather than training the dog.

    But just like your pup, a two year old will feel less anxious if her world is consistent and predictable and she knows what’s expected of her. She will understand a request to do something (“please stand here”) rather than a request NOT to do something (“please stop running around”).

    Playing “put your finger on this spot” would sound much more interesting to her than having to “stop fidgeting”.

  22. sara says

    Holy smokes, I guess we disagree!!

    I don’t see this as a safety issue. Nothing in the original post indicates that this is a tactic used to promote safety. This is a convenience hack, and it was posed as a successful method of dealing with a “fidgety” toddler. If this was a safety issue, then I would say that we as parents are responsible for the safety of the child. If the child is too young to be set down at the register without fear of them running off, then they shouldn’t be set down IMO. Depending on a kid to obediently follow directions like “put your hand on this screw” is NOT keeping the child safe, and is hardly age appropriate for most toddlers.

    Until they’re able to begin exercising good judgment, I prefer to exercise it for them. Whether that means leaving the toddler with someone while I shop, or bringing some toys for them to play with in the cart, or limiting the length of the shopping trip, or carrying the tantrum outdoors.

    If we’re talking about age appropriate expectations, then it should be expected that shopping trips with a toddler are going to involve tantrums and fidgetiness and inconvenience. I didn’t say that I expected a toddler to understand the concept of critical thinking, I said it was a long term goal. It seems likely that this goal would be undermined from the start by first teaching blind obedience, and then expecting the child to just “forget all that training with the treats and conditional approval.” In fact, it seems plausible that this method could evolve into sticker charts, and money for good grades, and things of that nature. I know these are things that many folks consider perfectly wonderful, but that’s just not me.

  23. adrienne says

    This interesting discussion brings to mind parenting advice about older infants and toddlers which recommends redirecting the child’s attention rather than trying to verbally “correct” a very young child.

    I know I ask our son to “help” me with all sorts of actions that serve no purpose (e.g. repeatedly opening and closing an empty box or moving magnets from the washer to the dryer and back). He enjoys being of assistance- and I can give him genuine praise for his efforts, his willingness to help, and his growing attention span.

    We’re working on teaching Ranger to always hold our hands in the parking lot, and I’m going to start working on the touch the car while waiting approach immediately.

  24. Annette says

    Good grief – why is everyone so worked up about this? Essentially, what Ed has done is turned obedience into a game – brilliant! What young child doesn’t love a good game? As far as critical thinking goes, Sara has obviously interacted with very few toddlers…

  25. Kristi says

    I’m surprised at the extreme distaste some people have for this idea. I think it’s brilliant, and I wish I’d thought of it myself! It certainly doesn’t strike me as qualitatively different from much of what Jo Frost recommends. It obviously has never occurred to some of you that when a kid is fidgety he and everyone around will benefit if he’s given a focus — call it a job to do, a game to play, or whatever. Channeling a child’s energy and attention for a brief period of time isn’t cruel or inhumane, it’s considerate of both the child and the other adults around.

  26. none says


    I think that the difference is in how everyone reads it. I read it and extrapolate it to something that I know could work well for our family and some of my friends’ children. For some, it wouldn’t work. In my mind, it’s applications go to safety. In a perfect world, I wouldn’t have to run to the store with my squirmy girl (especially right now with one foot in a cast.) However, I have no family nearby, and my husband works over an hour way. Sometimes, things happen. As she gets older, I can see how this hack could help me. She is fast and devious now, so I imagine she could get far more creative as time progresses.

    You read it and find it distasteful. Therefore, you don’t see it’s validity. *shrug* Fine. Like the ed says, we have to look at this and take what works for us and leave the rest.

    The problem lies with stating that those of us who find it useful are to be held in low regard.

  27. sara says

    I’d just like to point out that there are at least 5 posts here that start out with “Sara” or contain “that Sara” or else question my experience with children.

    My intent has been to share why I think this is a bad idea, as well as what I would do instead. Unfortunately, since these hacks usually come from fellow parents specifically, then I guess by default having any criticism of the hack or idea could be seen as a criticism of the parent. I’m not trying to hurt anyone’s feelings, or imply anything. In fact, I’ve tried very hard to make my comments limited to the hack itself, and specific to my ideas, philosophies, and yes experience. I’ve certainly not addressed any person individually or made any personal comments.

    We’ve all got opinions on this stuff. In this instance it’s obvious that I’M the odd person out, so I’m not sure why anyone is focused on my opinion.

  28. STL Mom says

    This story reminds me of going to a store years ago with a friend and her daughter, who must have been about three years old. While the mom was paying, the little girl started fidgeting and touching the counter. Wouldn’t you know, she found a hole just the size of her finger, so she stuck her finger in. Wouldn’t you know, she then couldn’t get it back out and started screaming for help. It took several minutes to detatch the girl from the counter. No damage was done, but her finger was red and sore for a little while, and my ears hurt for a long while.
    Just wanted to point out that controlling kids’ hands at the checkout can be a safety issue!

  29. Ava Tari says

    A variation of this is the only way I can keep my toddler from being flattened by a car. We recently moved to the US and he has no concept of streets or parking lots, so after I get him out of the car and while I’m locking the car, I ask him to touch the car and stay touching it until we are ready to walk together.

    He loves cars, so it works. Otherwise, he’s off like a shot to try to catch a real one.

  30. Jen says

    I have only minimal problems with the idea itself (rewards, especially food, aren’t my way to go), but Ed sounds like he’s talking about a dog, which I find disrespectful to his son.

  31. Kami says

    This reminds me of a story my grandmother told me. When she had young children and they would start to get fidgety in the store, she would ask them to please help her by holding up the support beams. She always said it worked really well and the kids obviously felt very important helping to hold the roof up. :)

  32. Ryan says

    I too am concerned about the previously mentioned impact of this parenting “tool.” From books I’ve been reading (Unconditional Parenting, Non-violent Communication and Playful Parenting… as examples) behavior modification techniques that rely on treats, rewards, and such prevent children from learning why they are “too obey” us. Behavior modification strategies also are typically based on our desire for the child to be easily parented. Fact is they are not. Treat techniques require bigger better treats down the road. Bigger, better rewards.

    Games are, indeed, a great technique as the car-touching example pointed out. This parent found something the child liked and used this to engage the child and demonstrate that the parent listened to the child. The only reward here was the experience of the child touching something he loved with some one he loves.

    Sara was quick to observe a potential hazard to this parenting “tool” in that it is an un-engaged strategy where parents are allowed to do as they please. Let’s remember the inspiration for this “ground tying” technique: a horse. If you know much about the old westerns, there is always a cowboy who “breaks” a horse.

    I’m with Sara and don’t want my son to have his will “broken” by treats and reward based behavior modification. I think there is a good deal of wisdom in the statements she made.

  33. Liz says

    For all those who criticize this tactic I would like to know how you repremand your child for misbehavior? No matter how you choose, the tabooed spanking, time-out, etc. you are using negative reinforcement to curb behavior. this is not just used in child and pets. why do most adults not commit crime? so as not to face penalties and/or jail time. this is negative reinforcement. i don’t do something because i am afraid of what will happen to me if i do.

    this parent has suggested positive reinforcement. i am so surprised how reproached parents are by this. would you rather threaten your child to behave then reward then for proper behavior? or maybe you’re the annoying parent who lets your child who does nothing while everyone else around you becomes annoyed by your child? how many of us received an allowance as a child for doing chores? why do people bother to work now? i do something because i want the reward. i certainly prefer positive reinforcement to negative.

  34. Heather says

    I think this article has brought a refreshing view of true discipline. What do you think will be required of a child who wants to grow into a mature, responsible, adult? Discipline…or what if he/she wants to be a Doctor, Lawyer, Athlete, or Circus Ringmaster…Discipline. Four of the definitions offered at dictionary.com for Discipline are as follows: 1. training to act in accordance with rules; drill: military discipline.
    2.activity, exercise, or a regimen that develops or improves a skill; training: A daily stint at the typewriter is excellent discipline for a writer.
    5.behavior in accord with rules of conduct; behavior and order maintained by training and control: good discipline in an army.
    6.a set or system of rules and regulations.

    Just because a parent creates boundaries in the life of a child, does not mean that parent isn’t teaching the child to think. Quite the contrary, it requires effort, and reasoning to obey, and yes discipline. We are all living under someone else’s rule, whether at work or play. It is the way of the world, it is RIGHT to train a child in the way he/she SHOULD go.

  35. lou says


    Well I guess I commend you for not leaving him in the car with a small crack in the window.

  36. jasi says

    Ya know… I think it’s alright for now.

    My child is a year old and she doesn’t understand why she must stay near me in the grocery. So it’s basically me ‘training’ her to behave and help mommy with errands. I try to explain to her why but it’s clear she doesn’t get it. As she gets older and sees what’s acceptable and safe in our society, the ‘training’ gives way to logic we can both dig.

    “Sweetie, you can’t run off because it’s dangerous.” turns into “It’s dangerous for you to run off because…”

  37. hedra says

    I bet none of y’all have ever worked with horses that ground tie, either!

    Ground tie is used with horses that are smart/experienced enough to know their job (if you’ve ever watched a roping pony work cattle, you know they *know* what their job is), and typically with horses who work as a real team with their riders. We’re talking working or rodeo roping ponies, or horses that were daily transport and lifeline for their riders under often less-than-ideal conditions.

    My sister had a retired ‘range’ (that is, ‘worked in the mountains for weeks or months at a time, turned out in the same area in the off-season’) cow-pony when I was a kid. He would ground tie perfectly – but only when you were working with him and he knew it was part of his job. If you just dropped the reins and left him there while you went about your own business, he’d wander off. He would in fact pull up pretty serious corkscrew stakes he’d been tied to ‘the usual way’ if left to his own devices. Solo, he was a pain in the rear, obnoxious, trickster. Working in a team, he was a wonder.

    It is maybe important to understand what a ground-tie looks like up close – Ground-tie isn’t a ‘relaxed’ activity. It is focused, narrowly and with alertness. My sister’s horse was pretty calm about it due to years of experience, but you could almost feel his readiness for whatever was asked next. He was ‘on’.

    Similar with the child, really. While the hack I think was presented with a bit a wink at the parallels between it and animal training, if this is done as JUST a way to control the child’s behavior (without a sense of team playing), the child WILL stop playing and just do their own thing. Maybe not the first time, but soon enough.

    But play it as a team (which I suspect was actually involved, though not overtly)… then, very different game. We’re pretty hard-wired for relationships, yes? In an engaged relationship, the child knowing that their task helps the other party complete their part of the larger task, and that the team will then proceed to the next activity (which is going to be also exciting/engaging), having completed this one properly together… they’ll stay engaged, and are more likely to play along. I think it works quite nicely, that way.

    There’s not a clear picture in the hack description of the ‘team’ aspect, but I’m not going to assume too much – I know that when I had my first, I misunderstood a lot of the nature of the relationship, and didn’t adequately express the amount of ‘training’ and ‘behavior management’ that was really a complex dance-in-relationship. I tended to under-notice the back-and-forth-ness, and over-notice the ‘I did something and it WORKED!’-ness.

    Yeah, I’ve used animal training methods and principles on my kids. They have their uses, mainly in realizing that most problems stem from the parental behavior, and not the child’s… and that if you’re engaged and working together, you’ve already lost.

  38. hedra says

    ARGH. Make that “If you’re NOT engaged and working together you’ve already lost…”

    And I previewed and everything. Sigh.

  39. Betsy says

    Can I just say that I have a huge mommy crush on Hedra? Whenever I see that she has posted a comment, I go check it out as she always has something thoughtful to say.

    ParentHacks is lucky she is a lurker.

    And Hedra, if you want to come live with us for a while, door is open.

    If you want to write a book, I’m buying.

  40. Shauna says

    You know, it seems to me that we, as parents, have such a daily struggle; whether it is to keep our kids safe, or educated or behaving, that unless an idea is dangerous or is detrimental to a child – we should look at how it works for the parent in question. I have had my 4 year old race out from a check out and get nailed by a shopping cart. I would much rather play a game of having her hold up the counter, then worry about broken bones or worse.

    I want my child to be a critical thinker eventually, but I want her to live long enough to get there.

    I think we may be getting caught up in phrasing. If we look past the “agricultural phrasing” there are some interesting discipline ideas in Ed’s post.

  41. Elizabeth says

    Hedra, I’d love to hear more from you about the concepts you’re putting forth, particularly this sentence: “I tended to under-notice the back-and-forth-ness, and over-notice the ‘I did something and it WORKED!’-ness.” Would you be willing to post something more in depth regarding the same things you’ve described here? I’m thoroughly intrigued!

  42. Aner says

    I guess I would offend most everybody here with my fav “parent hack” it’s the only thing that helps me keep my sanity when my son and I are out in the backyard. It’s not fenced, we are renting due to the air force at this time. My son has a speech/learning disibility. My first child had this same problem and I learned the hard way what happens when your toddler gets “away” from you(I know it happens to everyone even if they won’t admit it) So seeing as I can’t have a fence I put my toddler on a clothes line leash with a harness so he can’t leave the yard. I don’t care if people think I am treating him like a dog he’s alive and I want to keep him that way without having a nervous breakdown. So unless you live it don’t diss it!

  43. Kristin Overholt says

    I didn’t enjoy reading the hack (which I think is great) as much as I have enjoyed the comments! I employ a similar game with my almost two year old daughter. In parking lots, I have her “help me hold the car still” while I get her younger sister buckled in. Not only does this give her a sense of power in controlling the car, it helps her understand working together AND keeps her in place without the power struggle. In a perfect world, I would probably have her in sling on my back and we would have just walked to the local market, but let’s be real. I would also like to say that the more I see of kids, I think much of their personality and what they respond to is in their nature from the day they are born – not a result of parenting. So do what works for your own child, tailor ideas from other people to suit your needs, and be supportive. There are enough other negative forces at work- mainstream media, abusive parents, etc – that the last thing we need is to beat eachother up over whether this idea is too harsh.

  44. hedra says

    Elizabeth, I always start out thinking ‘what more can I say?’ though once I start trying, I’ll probably write a short novel. Sigh… oh, and yes, I *am* writing a book, looks like a series of books… but we as a family have decided that since writing *EATS* a person’s brain/life/time when done well, we’re waiting a few years (probably two) before the really serious dedicated writing. Kids are too little to have mommy vanish into a book.)

    Anyway, the ‘over notice the ‘I DID IT!’ and ‘under notice the dance’ thing…

    Obviously both ‘dancing’ and ‘training’ take two parties (or more). In the actual dancing I do most, there are some dances where one person (male role) leads, but most are done with both members of the couple knowing how to do the dance, and each being responsible for their own actions, though sometimes one leads, or the other leads, and a lot of the time they work in harmony toward the same figure or movement. It takes mutual awareness, eye contact, and an agreement that both are here on purpose to do this dance at this time, together.

    Even in the ‘male-leads’ dances (like waltzing), there’s an agreement that while one party is choosing the direction and the moves for both, the other is choosing to move with those turns and spins. If someone leads in a direction that you don’t want to go, it is fairly easy as the following partner to shut it down and make it nearly impossible to go anywhere. And one can always refuse to move at all. It behooves the leading party to make the dance enjoyable for both. Quality teaching does the same thing, by the way – it engages the child in a dance of learning with the teacher. But the ‘Look what I taught my child to do!’ thing… that’s not the response of a teacher. That’s the response of a scientist with a subject, under supposedly controlled conditions, creating repeatable results.

    I’m something of a scientist by inclination. I love to research, and I always connected with the experimenting approach to life that every child seems to be born with. I’m also a dancer by both nature and training – my sister taught me to dance when I was 9, and I’ve added different kinds of dancing along the way. The scientist side engages my intellect and curiosity. The dancing engages everything. Not everything ‘else’, everything.

    When my oldest was a baby, parenthood seemed to be ‘the great experiment’ – We tried things out, and learned by trial and error what worked and what did not. But the very act of ‘trying things out’ meant that we were taking on a specific role – we were the scientists, he was the subject. Not exactly even footing. Even though we always had immense regard for him, and a deep humility at being ‘given’ such a wondrous being to care for… it still kind of set up the thought process as ‘we grownups, you child’ and ‘results are the goal’.

    My very favorite ‘experiment’ in this phase was realizing that I could ‘extinct’ a behavior in three days by being absolutely consistent in my response – ignore or ‘bore’ the negative, and then engage ‘laser-beam’ on the next positive that occurs: Lots of face-to-face, active ‘affect’ (emotional expression), lively voice, physical touch, down at their level, the whole bit, laid on with a trowel as my mom would say. Woo! They do the good thing, and they get the goodies. Jackpot, you know. Positive reinforce the positive, bland-to-null the negative, and all you get is positive. No resorting to big angries, no stern looks, no timeouts, no nada, and in three days, hitting (or whatever) just ceased to happen. BRILLIANT ME! Just look at those RESULTS!

    But. But I didn’t notice how much the very same thing was happening to me. I didn’t notice that G had trained me to sing to him. Engaged look, active affect, emotional response… and yes, I’d do it again and again and again. I think at one point I noticed that almost every thing I said to him, I sang. Huh.

    I also noticed, but didn’t really think about my near-addict reaction to his baby laugh, repeating things that made him laugh over and over and over. (Actually one of my signs of PPD was that I lost that visceral drive to hear him laugh.) Again, results.

    But while results and experimenting on each other is indeed part of the whole process, (it is, and I do not deny that at all!), I was missing the larger pattern.

    I think the first time I noticed that I was seeing only part of the picture was the first time my son took ME for a walk. We went looking for elephants. He was about 22 months old. We didn’t find any elephants (they hide up trees, you know – everybody nod sagely now!), but he did spot some tiger tracks on the sidewalk. The feeling of following him down the block was the very same feeling as letting someone else – someone you trust – lead the dance. There’s a letting go, a faith, and a freedom from goals. I don’t know where we’re going, and it doesn’t really matter. I’m enjoying it, and you’re enjoying it, and we’ll both find out where we were headed when we get there. My role as mother, just like in waltzing, is to time my steps to match my partner’s, and to provide cues to avoid hazards (like other dancers – we tend to dance with a lot of other people on the floor at once), and go with things as they occur… let the music tell me what to do.

    I’m not much of a ‘true follower’ in general, even in waltzing – I’m sure that would annoy the traditionalists. But my DH is a Quaker, and he’d grown up thinking in terms of relationship-as-partnership-of-equals, and perhaps as a result our waltzing is more of an interplay than it might be. We’ve been dancing together long enough that none of it is overt at all, it is just a shift and a glance and a speeding up and a slowing down, one turn with more direction from me than the one before, the next with less or none at all, as the music and the conditions require. I may direct (technically, hard to lead with the hands in the female hold position), I follow, we communicate continuously, it shifts again, and while we both know the same steps, each dance is different and goes different places.

    Likewise, in parenting – there are loads of parents who are better at truly following their childrens’ lead than I am. I’m not sure if it is necessary for it to be one type of partnership or another (true leading/following, or totally egalitarian, or something in-between). But it does seem to make a difference for me when I look at the larger picture, and see that we’re the most intimately connected, the relationship is strongest and the most satisfying, when we’re more focussed on ‘letting the music tell us what to do’ than on ‘trying to finish over there in that exact spot with a flourish that everyone will envy’.

    Some of the parent-child dance is wonderful and whole and easy and safe – opening my senses, sitting inside the kitchen door listening to the night, pointing out the sounds – train, cricket, trees, car. I used to know that, he taught me again, I was leading, now he’s leading. I start the move, he completes it and makes it his own, and in doing so I learn something new myself. Look what he did!… no, look what we did, together. Who started it becomes immaterial, and where we end is completely irrelevant. All that matters was the dance.

    And, some of that dancing is blind, and potentially even dangerous. He taught me how to feed him, as much as I tried to teach him how to eat. My (admittedly mild) food issues, plus his (very significant physiological and trauma-based) food issues, and we danced ourselves right into a corner, and he ended up in a feeding clinic with conditioned dysphagia. We got there together, he and I, working in tandem. Only it was *his* growth and health and life that suffered, not mine. Harsh lesson, there. You can’t just dance around blindly without consequences, ignoring everything else on the floor. And even when you think you know where you’re going, or are sure that the results are not critical, you don’t always know where you’ll end up when you get to the final chord.

    Another difference between the dance and the ‘experiment’ is that there’s a sense in the Grand Experiment approach that it is important to understand how the subject responds, why, and how to make that ‘work’, reliably. It is about control, surety, certainty. If you know how it works, you can get it to happen again! Reliable results, the repeatable experiment, that’s your gold standard. Parenting becomes safe when you know what you’ll get – and we all know that’s a fallacy, but it is a very seductive one. By contrast, in the dance you work with what you have in the moment, respond to what is happening right now because there’s really no joy in doing anything else. It can change – if the music changes, the dance changes. If the partnership changes, the dance changes. If the conditions change, the dance changes. Better footing, faster dancing. More people on the floor, tighter turns and more energy on outward awareness. Every condition affects the dance, and you dance accordingly. Destination be damned, pretty much. Again, for me, the dance is the larger picture. Kids don’t develop in a straight line. What they learn from 2 to 6 years old is lost in the brain-hemisphere growth transition at 7, and must be relearned in the new brain hemisphere, often with a great deal of parental frustration… Fight those lessons back through again only to have them be recovered out of nowhere with greater depth as the brain growth shifts sides again. Forward motion is illusory, and so is backward. That goals-goals-goals, woo-hoo, results approach is stymied time and again by children being human. Get sucked into the joy of results, and expect to have the rug yanked out of under you. The sleeping through comes and goes. The helpfulness comes and goes. The easy joyful relationship comes and goes. The good, bad, and ugly all cycle and flow with their own rhythm. Get too caught up in the goals/successes, and you get one of those pride-cometh-before-a-fall moments, too. Splat. They hurt less when I focus on the process and not the results. He’s sleeping through now, I’ll enjoy that now, and when it fades away again like it never happened, I’ll roll with that, too, and trust that sleeping will occur again sometime later.

    Yeah, results are nice to see, expecially when other people notice and think they’re cool, or when sleep is involved, LOL!. But I find that the process is *still* more valuable. It is where the intimacy of the relationship lives. It is where we learn *who* our child is, and who we are, and not just what they are able to do. That’s the good stuff. And funny, taking that approach more hasn’t stopped the ‘woo-HOO!’ moments, just shifted them from ‘look what I did’ to ‘look what my child has done’.

    I think that transition (from self-focus to child-focus) is a natural and common one… we start out only knowing ourselves (as much or little as we do), and our parenting focus in this (American) culture is very ‘event’ oriented. Combine those, and the energy runs toward Results. Sleeping through the night. Being respectful in church/temple/nature. Learning to act properly, speak well, do chores, do homework, make the grade, make us proud.

    But observation, experience, and the kids themselves will force the issue the other way if you let them. No matter how much we focus on the events and results, the dance still goes on. We can ‘train’ them to provide the woo-hoo moments, but they’re still dancing, and so are we. Shifting my focus so that I SAW that more, and put more value in that has also reduced the pressure of parenthood for me. Results still hook me regularly (‘can we let G quit taking Tai Qi lessons when he hasn’t yet *passed the test* for the form he was trying to complete?’), but I still find the answers in the process (‘did he learn what it means to practice and work towards a mastry that will be a lifetime in achieving? yes, then stopping the lessons isn’t quitting — a ‘bad’ result — it is merely a change. Lessons can be resumed when the time is right, and mastry will remain an ever-evolving process. No failure, just choice. Not an end point, and no results ‘value’ either way.). Process tells me different things than results do. Doesn’t mean I ignore the experiment/results/training side, either, keep in mind. I’ve just come to value it less over time.

    As of this morning, the dance continues. This morning, my oldest shut down the path of a conversation he wasn’t terribly interested in, using exactly the same ‘conditioning’ that I exerimented with when he was 18 months old. He dropped his affect and engagement to bland, lost eye contact, no overt annoyance, just slipped out of the connection. Kind of like how I can slow down a too-fast partner by just letting my weight drop down and softening my arms. G slowed me down and changed my direction, and then engaged me again with a topic more to his liking, and off we went in another direction, instead. I could have forced the discussion back to what interested me (and have done so when something seems important), but I saw what he was doing, and let go of the desire to IMPART KNOWLEDGE RIGHT NOW. I recognized that he was using my own ‘training’ on me, and registered that he got equally good results by being bland first and then engaged when I agreed to the request he made next. I could look at that and still say ‘look what I taught him to do!’… but more important is that I recognized that he was taking his turn to lead for a moment, and I could choose to — or choose not to — dance along. (Gah, now I have the words to that sappy song in my head – ‘I hope you dance!’ ACK!)

  45. Val says

    The grocery store that we go to has tiles, so when I am in line, and my child is a little anxious, I just say, “Find a square!”. She picks whatever “square” she wants to be in and waits. If I bought something for her, I get that item and put it in her own bag and let her hold it while we are waiting.

  46. rachel says

    i dont totally disagree, i was at the bank today with my 3 1/2 year old son, and he was acting up in the long line, pulling on ropes, not paying attention to me.. etc, i think this would have worked, and if u feel uncomfortable using “commands” make it a game instead of a “trick” get them playing it at home first, reward a sticker or some other fun incentive…then when ur faced with a situation…..ask to play the game, but keep in mind that if its a game that is also to help you control your child, dont play it all the time, only when necessary, this way they will be more excited to play ” freeze tag” because isnt that essentially what it is?

  47. Emily says

    That’s a great hack – I will definitely use it.

    I’m forever reminding my husband that our son understands being told TO do something, and does NOT understand being told NOT to do something. Eg. if you tell him to quit running around, you haven’t substituted an activity for him to do and while he’s a bright kid, he needs the direction of being told what to do instead of running. Asking him to hold onto the grocery cart or the car (and making it a game) engages him far more effectively.

  48. Drew says

    Thanks Hedra, i got a lot out of your post.. and you obviously put a lot into it… but i must admit i feel there is wisdom in your “dance” concept. As for the rest of the responses its just another case of people believing in thier own beliefs… funny that.

  49. appalled says

    I don’t have time to read the comments, but just wanted to invite all to read “Non Violent Communication” by MB Rosenberg.

    I do not believe we can “train” any human being… for long. The only long lasting “training” must come from within. And the only long lasting way we can “train” our children is by modeling that which we’d like for them to be.

    If you’re “training” your child to do one thing, while they’re regularly observing you do another (do YOU say please and thank you every single time?? if not, then don’t expect them to), which method of “training” them do you think is going to have the long lasting impression?

    I know my answer. I watch my kids behave like little mini-me and my husband every single day. Which has motivated ME to better train myself!