Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Black dog bites when happiness is an entitlement
I have a black dog. I mean, I get depressed, sure, as sentient creatures will, and Jeff Kennett too. But I also have a black dog.
He’s a poodle, small for a standard but bigger than little, if you know what I mean. And while I say he, “it” is really more accurate – a fact my partner still feels as a wound to males everywhere, whatever the species. Probably even fully equipped, though, this particular quadruped would be smiley, sweet-eyed and placid. He’s just one of those dogs.
Never gets aggressive, ever. Didn’t bark until he was two, and then only at garage doors. Rolls over for a fluffy slipper. That type.
It may be nobility or it may be cowardice, but he seems to love everything in this world – except green vegetables and small white dogs.
The greens he leaves at the bottom of the bowl, but small white dogs – those he’ll cross the road to avoid.
Is this prejudice, canine racism? Or is it rational, learned behaviour based on the fact that everywhere he goes he is plagued by small white canines that descend upon him like avenging clouds of outsize scale insects. He’s on the lead, marching stoically towards the park, and the toothed fluffball hordes are orbiting hysterically, nipping and yelping like a mob of iced-up Lilliputians. The more steadfastly he declines to retaliate, the more the fluff-gang winds it up.
Finally one of the insurgents sinks its teeth into the poodle’s clipped foreleg and my partner is moved to shift the creature aside, swiftly yet firmly, with his right foot. All hell breaks loose. The fluffballs’ human minders, alarmed at this infringement of their dogs’ right to bite, formed up into a second cloud of angry yapping. We passed on but a week later they were still going, following me down the street with cries of: “There’s the lady whose husband kicks dogs!”
That was months ago. Yet still the dog and I avoid that route, reflecting as we pass on the lessons from that afternoon. First, that this is how bullying happens and becomes socially entrenched. Second, that power isn’t simple and doesn’t always inhere in the big or the strong; sometimes the small and weak can be vastly more dangerous. But there’s also this. The refusal to discipline dogs – the desire to empathise rather than master – offers a direct analogue of our moral miasma around the discipline of children.
Like when you’re at the pool or the movies during the day (a freelancer’s reward) and an entire class of nine-year-olds pushes through ahead of you without a word of demur from teacher. Or when you’re at some do or other and people whose feet don’t even reach the edge of the chair brazenly sit while their own grandparents stand. Or when the two-year-old in the supermarket has a tantrum and the mother responds with ice-cream. Or when your pre-teen comes home from school spouting
children’s rights. You can’t make
me, Mummy. Children have rights.
What do they feed them at school? Matilda? Freedom wars for the under-eights? Liberation theology-laced jelly beans?
Well yes, actually. Child power is a constant theme of kiddie culture. Children good, adults stupid, that sort of thing. It’s not just kid-lit. Myriad factors in the life of the modern Western child conspire to foster a generalised belief that a child is inherently more valuable than an adult.
What is this? Not love, surely.
More likely a neurotic over-investment in a childhood we ourselves are reluctant to leave.
Symptoms as follows. Parents who not only devote themselves to their children’s education and welfare but also defer to them over dinner, clothes, entertainment and holidays. Schools driven to bolster the little darlings’ self-esteem, regardless of achievement. Sporting clubs doling out trophies to even the most backward of athletes. Parenting manuals that allow only praise, not punishment. Family law culture that assumes the overriding value in any dispute is (sigh) the children’s happiness.
It’s like we can’t get over Dickens. Like they’re all little Olivers, backed up against the workhouse, pleading for more. Like we need only treat them well to know they’ll behave well, forever.
But in truth, any child confronting a deferential adult can either emulate that ideal or take the opportunity to behave especially badly.
Enter politics; the left being defined by its presumption of inborn goodness while the right goes with original sin. Personally, I’m in the middle. Any human can act well or badly and much of the the point of parenting is to make that difference plain.
To this end, however, both good and bad must be seen and named for what they are, and both carrot and stick available as tools. Any attempt to mould children through praise alone will fail and, worse, will nurture the sense of overweening entitlement that encourages child gangs, playground knifings, obesity epidemics, intimidated parents, welfare addiction and, yes, bullying.
As the historian Richard Schoch notes: “Somewhere between Plato and Prozac, happiness stopped being a lofty achievement and became an entitlement.” But entitlement denied – as entitlement must be – generates a yapping cloud of frustration, anger, violence, despair and, nipping their heels (say the shrinks), the black dog himself.