The two smallest beings in my household -- my daughter Lily, age 8, and our miniature Schnauzer, Otto von Mustache, age 2 -- were having a moment. Otto had been indulgently letting Lily rub his stomach, despite the awkward position she'd cornered him into, and then she decided to play with his muzzle, tugging it this way and that, in a fashion that he sometimes liked, but on this particular day made him growl. And then growl more.
"Stop, honey," I warned her. "He's telling you he doesn't like that."
But she persisted. "This is how he plays, Papa. If I was another dog, he'd think I was playing."
Otto's growling got a bit more intense and though he did not bark, I did. "Who said anything about other dogs? I'm your dad and I asked you to stop." She let his muzzle go, with a wee groan at the injustice of the universe, and Otto darted off to the couch, happy to be done playing with humans for the moment.
A terrible thought crossed my mind: Next time, I hope he bites her. Actually, it wasn't a terrible thought; it was a thought many parents can relate to, just an honest wish for what I call a "Low Cost Lesson."
Before you summon Child Welfare or string me up in effigy as the dad who sics the family dog on his own kid, let me offer some context. Our dog is 20 pounds of snuggle with an occasional burst of frantic; he has never bitten anyone and even when he freaks out around other dogs, he's all bark and quiver. With his little mouth the size of my fist, if he were actually able to find some part of my daughter small enough to get his teeth around, I suppose he might break the skin, but I truly don't believe it would get that far. Fearful dog that he is, the first scream from her powerful lungs might well collapse him. (It has certainly flattened me on occasion.)
So, when I say that I hoped Otto would bite her, I mean that I hoped he'd nip at her, make just enough contact to be upsetting and teach her, in a way that I could not, that she was crossing a line. If she was scared and upset by such an event, far from doing her lasting harm, it could do her some lasting good. It could help her learn better boundaries with Otto and, in turn, perhaps consider her actions more carefully in other situations.
That's what I mean about a Low Cost Lesson: a learning moment of enough consequence to make an impression, but without so high a toll that the learning is obscured by the aftermath. It's a kind of lesson only life can teach. When you get a blister from grabbing a hot pan handle or a traffic ticket for that last-minute U-turn, you don't enjoy the results, but they are undeniably instructive moments that might make you conduct yourself more safely ever after.
There are countless things I try to teach my daughter, rules and parameters and options that I think she'll need as she navigates the world. But being 8 sometimes means separating herself out from my opinion and testing the water to see what might happen if she does not listen, a fact I may not enjoy, but which is both developmentally appropriate and even crucial. I can't be present for every decision she'll make, now or later, to offer advice for her to follow or ignore; she needs to develop her ability take stock of whatever situation and moment she's in and then make good choices.
There will be times ahead when the stakes are much higher than whether or not a dog the size of her favorite stuffed animal may bite her. In such moments, she may well benefit from having been bitten a few times and thus having already developed a sense that her actions come with greater cause-and-effect than just "my dad will be mad" or "my dad will be proud."
As parents, we want nothing more than to see Lily into a happy future, but that doesn't mean protecting her from every hurtful experience. In fact, it sometimes means the opposite: letting her make the bad choice, witnessing her suffer the fallout, and then hopefully watching her mature as a result.
It also means holding her when she is crying because, yes, Otto von Mustache did in fact bite her later the same day that I had told her to leave him alone. As I expected, he nipped more than bit and he was every bit as freaked out as she was, but it was suitably frightening to her, and also a bit mortifying. In other words, it was a perfect Low Cost Lesson -- no blood, only tears.
She howled as if grief-stricken for a while, and each of her dads held her in turn, rubbing her back and letting her cry. But as the tears dried, we talked about what had happened and how Otto had now taught her his limits. She didn't like that idea very much, but she got it. When next he growled, she listened.
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