Tuesday, January 15, 2013


I got an email from Katie's teacher yesterday.

"Just to give you a heads up about today.  She got upset very easily and would get angry.  She said she was tired.  Hope tomorrow is a better day."

It's the first time one of Katie's teachers sent us a note about Katie's inappropriate behavior at school.  Still, I wasn't surprised to see the note in my inbox.  I know about a few outbursts she's had at school lately.  Katie speaks freely to me about her good and bad days.  She rats herself out when she loses a cube, the primary punishment at her school.  I'm not worried about our relationship.  She's heard me say over and over again, "You can say anything to me."

I get my parenting advice from an 80s movie with cute stars and a really good theme song by Peter Gabriel.

I'm not worried about Katie academically either.  On her last progress report, her teacher wrote, "Katie has scored 100 percent on all of her spelling tests!  Super effort!  She does an excellent job of working quietly on class assignments.  Keep up the excellent effort in all academic areas!"

It's her peer relationships that worry me.  Ever since she first started begging for a sibling that my sub-fertile body couldn't produce, I've worried about how Katie's going to practice the fine art of learning how to get along with someone who often drives you crazy.  Katie gets along great with Will and me, her grandparents, her extended family including cousins her age, her self-selected friends outside of school.  But it's easy to be nice to people who like you.  Who love you and accept you for who you are.  Kids at school are less impressed.  

When I came to the realization I was raising an only child, I panicked.  I must socialize her!  I took the dogs to the dog park to socialize them.  It only made sense to take Katie to the human park to play with other humans her age.  Problem solved, right?  

Nope.  Turns outs an hour of playtime at the park every now and then is not the same as spending seven hours a day with twenty-four other kids your age.

Now my worries are being validated.  On the same progress report, Katie's teacher wrote, "Goal: Work on peer relationships.  At times, Katie gets upset with her classmates and shouts at them.  We as a class are working on how to handle situations with peers when we disagree with them." 

Well, that's not so bad.  Sure, it'd be nice if Katie had more real-world experience with a sibling at home to fight with and make up with and do it all over the next day instead of her pretend sisters Bacca and Stella Sarah, who, if you want to know the truth, are a couple of pushovers.  You can get those dolls to do whatever you want, which I'm sure is one of the benefits for Katie, being the oldest sister among the three.  She's in control.  At school, she's not.  And sometimes it freaks her out.  I can understand that.  But there's no excuse for pushing and shouting at your peers.  I'm glad they are going to discuss this topic as a class.  It will reiterate what she's learning at home.

I tell Katie all the time, "You don't have to like everybody but you do have to be kind to everybody.  It's hard.  There's lots of people who annoy me, but that's no excuse to be mean to someone."

She appears to be listening to my little lectures.  But she forgets when she's at recess and someone chases after her with their hand cocked like a gun shouting, "Pew, pew, pew, pew" in the odd way pretend bullets sound to six-year-olds.  She forgets to use her words by saying, "Stop it.  I don't want to play cops and robbers."  Instead she runs screaming across the playground or stands firm and pushes the kid to the ground.  Either way, it's overkill and she's not even the one with the fake gun.

"I wouldn't want someone to run after me with a fake gun either, Sweetie.  But you can't push your friends.  Just tell them to stop it and go tell the teacher if they're bothering you."

But she forgets.  

What Katie lacks in siblings she makes up for in dogs.

Earl is a 75 pound Great Pyrenees mix.  Sawyer is a 50 pound Beagle/Lab mix.  They bark a lot.  And loudly.  They are barking now as I type this.  They are barking now as you read this.  How do I know?  I love my furry kids, but damn, they bark all the flipping time.  

I grew up with an outside dog, so I never learned how to deal with house dogs until I met my ex-girlfriend, Kristin, who converted me into a born-again dog-lover.  Not even a month after we hooked up, we were at the St. Joseph pound picking out a puppy.

I got Earl when Kristin and I split up, but we lived together for nearly a year, so I learned the art of caring for dogs from Kristin.  She yells.  Normally a quiet person, Kristin would shout at the dogs over the most minor wrong-doing.  Soon, so did I.

Along with Kristin's example, I also read books on the subject since that's my natural  instinct as a librarian.  I learned that dogs have a natural instinct to bark.  They honestly think they are alerting the pack of imminent danger.  They thrive in packs and relish their human companion's role of alpha dog.  They want to be bossed around, Kristin and the books told me.

At that time Kristin was working - big shock - at a doggie daycare.  Not big shock because she's a lesbian.  Well, that too.  Big shock because most of the time my ex couldn't be bothered to show up to any job so it was quite a feat for her as an employee of this doggie daycare to get Earl and me into free puppy training classes before she got canned.  

"Firmer!"  The trainer commanded mousy me.  "You have to show him who's the boss!"

If I had my druthers I'd hold up my finger and shush him like a good little librarian.  But no, dogs are not library patrons.  Even though both sometimes pee on the floor.

Dogs can become aggressive toward their owners if the pack-order reverses and they think they're the alpha dog.  My mom once had to euthanize a dog because he bit her, twice, and he was so aggressive Mom worried someone might sue her if she knowingly gave away a dog that bites.

It's difficult for me to be firm without yelling.  I have a naturally high-pitched voice more suited for my own vocation than for the job of dog trainer.  Still, I love my dogs dearly.  And so I yelled at them.  For their own good, I thought.

I got the email about Katie's inappropriate behavior about ten minutes after I had already been selecting a book and a couple of DVDs on conflict resolution for Katie and me to read and watch together to see if I can help her learn some skills to cope better at school:

5 Ways to Work Things Out (Without Fighting) in the Get Along Monsters DVD series.

So I was disappointed to receive the news from her teacher.  But I was prepared.  I brought these resources home and laid them out on our kitchen table to show Katie what I had in mind.

She didn't bat an eye.  In fact, she picked up one of the DVDs and began reading the back to see what it was about.  She's used to my nerdy approach to self-help.  When she was having trouble learning to use the potty, I brought home a stack full of books and what soon became our favorite instructional video, Elmo's Potty Time.  Try getting those songs out of your head.

I announced, "We're going to spend some time going over this book and watching these videos.  I want you to learn how it's important to treat others kindly even when we disagree with them.  I think these might help."

As I tried to explain what "conflict resolution" means to a six-year old, the dogs began to bark. 

Without thinking, I shouted, "BE QUIET!!!"

Then Katie shouted, in the same tone of voice, "BE QUIET!!!"

I must have been slack-jawed because Katie stopped and said, "What?"

"Honey, I have an idea.  Why don't we make a deal?  Do you know what a deal is?" I asked.


"It's when you agree to try something at the same time I'll agree to try something.  We'll try to do something that's hard together so we can encourage each other to keep trying."

"What is the deal?" She looked suspicious.

"What if you try your hardest to stop yelling at kids at school and I'll try my hardest to stop yelling at the dogs?"

Her eyes bugged out of her head and she laughed a bit.  "OK," she agreed.

We shook hands on it.

I don't know what I've gotten myself into.  But it's a challenge I'm glad to make.  Will often complains about my yelling at the dogs.  He's right.  It doesn't even get them to quit barking. 

"They think you're barking too." Will says when I yell at the dogs to be quiet. 

Will claims he once saw a show where the trainer just walked over to the dog and laid his palm on the back of the dog's head and it calmed the dog enough to stop barking.  Will walks up to the dogs to demonstrate this technique and they stop barking before he even lays a hand on them.

"That's it.  You're never going to be able to leave the dogs' side again," I teased.

Will walked out of the room, smiling like he does when our cat who bites everyone else sits in his lap and makes biscuits.

When the dogs started barking again, I walked over and laid my palms on the backs of their heads to see if it would quiet them down.  It did not.  They looked at me like, "Well, why aren't you joining along?  It's group bark time isn't it?"  

They did not stop barking.  But I did.  Maybe eventually they'll follow my lead.  I suspect Katie will catch on faster than the dogs do.  Young humans are pretty good at learning new tricks.

After the dogs settled down on their own, I returned to the table to help Katie with her homework.  The students were instructed to fill out this worksheet stating who their hero is and why.  

Katie chose me.  Let's see if I can live up to the honor.

***Update: Two Days Later***

After a setback yesterday when Katie smacked her classmate on the shoulder with her lunch sack, prompting a handwritten note of apology to the girl from Katie, and another evening of discussing the issue of appropriate and inappropriate responses to other people's annoying behavior, we got some good news.  Another email from Katie's teacher:

Yippeee!!!! Today when Katie was unhappy with a classmate who was telling her what to do, instead of yelling and getting mad at them, she came up to me and told me.  I had a discussion with the two girls and we worked their problem out.  I pulled her aside later and told her how proud I was of her and that she had handled the situation appropriately.  (She got a big smile on her face.)  So I think your discussions at home are working!!

Great news!  And, to top it off, I am proud to say I haven't yelled at the dogs since Katie and I shook on it.  I've come very close a few times, but I stopped myself and took deep breaths, just as I've instructed Katie to do when her classmates get on her nerves.  

And guess what?  The dogs, sure, they still bark.  That's what dogs do.  But people don't.  I'm proud to say the human-canine behavior balance has been restored to the Carleton household.