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Parenting Lessons From Your Dog

02/10/2012 03:17 pm ET | Updated Apr 11, 2012

The YouTube video has gone viral: an angry daughter slams her parents on her Facebook page, then her father rebuts her vitriolic letter and empties his .45 into her laptop. Crazed maniac, or the sequel to "Go the F___ to Sleep"?

I wish he'd lose the gun, but I am glad the father said out loud what so many parents are thinking: how did my kid become so sullen and demanding? Where did I go wrong?

Parents, we made a mistake. We believed the popular myth that, "The more attention you give your kids, the better they'll turn out." After interviewing families in 20 countries around the world, I concluded the reality of parenting is something quite different: Humans have forgotten we are animals, and children are like dogs -- either you train them or they train you.

So, your children may be suffering from Attention Surplus Disorder. It started with Freud. People came to believe that the reason they were unhappy as adults was because they hadn't received enough love as children. Now, parents nobly bend over backwards to try and provide the perfect, trauma-free childhood for our kids.

Um, where are the results? Studies show today's parents spend more time with their kids, and yet today's kids don't seem happier, more independent or successful. They seem more troubled, entitled, and needy. If these households seem chaotic compared to the families we grew up in, it's because they are.

The key to understanding sullen kids and distraught parents is a shocker, because it's not about love -- it's about anxiety. When we parents think we're "helping" our child, it may be our own anxiety talking: our anxiety causes us to cave-in, rather than doing what's best for our family in the long run.

You might say that today's parents seem to be marrying their children instead of their spouses. The truth is, we often find it easier to be with our kids than our partners. This may seem child-friendly, but we don't realize we're using our kids as an escape from our spouses, because after all, adult relationships are hard.

Parents may harbor plenty of guilt as they leave their child with daycare on the way to work, so when they come home, they want to be the Uber-Parent and shower their child with love and attention. Parents may also use their kids like crack-cocaine, escaping into the unconditional love and fascination of a baby -- they're so darn cute.

Therein lies the slippery slope. If our kid crosses the line, it's tempting to let a boundary slip and default to what's easiest for now, because we're tired and we just want to enjoy a few moments of being friends with our child. Yet, when we want to be our kid's friend instead of parent we start to slide down that slope, and it only gets harder to get back to that original boundary. Yes. it does matter that she didn't say please just now. Yes, it does matter that she just talked sassy to you.

However lofty and noble our thoughts may be about parenting, we would do well to remember that humans are just animals without fur. The relationship between us and our offspring is more primal than it is enlightened. Your offspring is instinctively programmed constantly test and challenge you--that's their job. It's your job to train them in self-reliance and wean them to successful independence--which means staying calm but firm.

One parent observed, "If my kids complain, I have to stop myself from doing whatever it takes to calm them down. In the moment, I find it easier to give in than to tolerate my kid's upset. I guess you could say I find it too upsetting to be with their upset."

Firm is true love. Our goal as parents is to do what's best for our kids in the long run -- instead of seeking the affection that feels good for a fleeting moment, then leaves both you and your kids empty a moment later. It's fine to be your child's buddy when you're having fun together, but when she pitches a fit about how her hair's done or a blouse she doesn't like, it's not time to calm her down. True compassion means defining what we stand for and doing what's right. That teaches self-reliance and respect to everyone in the family. You're doing your family a favor to introduce calm-but-firm boundaries now, so your kids can grow up to be great spouses and successful employees who can get along with their bosses and hold a job. That's independence--and survival.

Sometimes I think we could learn more about parenting by watching Cesar Chavez on "The Dog Whisperer" than by reading parenting books. Dogs can smell fear and doubt. So can children. You're doing your family a favor if you can overcome your doubts and fears to introduce structure and boundaries into the lives of your children. An investment in calm-but-firm boundaries now can transform your home life from chaos to calm, and your kids can learn how to be citizens, rather than just consumers.

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