Samurai (or Sammy) is my dog. He has taught me a lot about life, and about working with kids in particular. This might sound strange. Certainly, in most ways, caring for a dog in no way compares to the responsibilities, rewards, and challenges of raising a child. And yet, there are certain key lessons that I have learned about what it is like to care for a life that is completely dependent on me, yet has his own perspective, priorities, and agenda. Sammy is not capable of understanding the challenges of my role. He cannot see how everything I do for him is in the effort of protecting him and providing for him. Oftentimes, he will be most frustrated and defiant when I have to set boundaries that are in his best interest. All he sees is that the boundary that I set is denying him what he wants.

One relevant lesson he taught me is about my own expectations. When I walk him, I have an agenda. Sometimes I treat it too much as a task, and don’t slow down and enjoy the walk as much as he would like. So here I am, rushing to get back to whatever I left at home while taking him on his walk. As you might imagine, he does not share my agenda. He has been cooped up most of the day, and wants to savor the walk. Sometimes it seems to me like he holds in doing his business to extend the route. Then, sooner or later, he catches a scent. It was at this point that I used to get impatient. Bad enough we were taking our time strolling around, but do we need to fully explore every scent and do a detailed analysis of every dog that had peed there before?

Turns out that we do. A friend of mine reminded me that dogs have a comparable ratio of brain space devoted to scent as we do to sight. Asking him to ignore a smell is like putting a flashing street sign in front of me and asking me to ignore it. I might be able to do it if I really try. But at least I should respect and appreciate the level of difficulty of what I am asking, and not take it personally if he can’t do it every time. After all, it is not an act of defiance against me, it is a response to a natural and powerful impulse to explore smells.[i] Add to that, I am asking because of my agenda, not even for his best interests. Suffice it to say, these days I am a little less impatient when he wants to sniff around on his walks. Usually.

This provides a good lesson for how we approach the demands we place on kids. There is a lot we ask them to do because it fits our agenda, not theirs. Sometimes it is in their best interest, sometimes it is for everyone in the family, and sometimes it just suits our agenda. Often what we are asking is a significant challenge on a neurological level. For kids, resisting their instincts and impulses is no easy task. They have not yet fully developed the capacity to delay gratification.

“Scientific studies on the frontal lobe have linked that area of the brain with regulating aggression, long-range planning, mental flexibility, abstract thinking, the capacity to hold in mind related pieces of information, and perhaps moral judgment.” [ii] The Frontal lobe is associated with what is called executive functioning. This term refers to the “conscious control of what we think and do. Executive functions include identifying problems, making decisions, planning, staying focused on a task, adapting flexibly to changing situations, controlling impulses, and regulating emotions and behavior. Executive functions are important for moment-to-moment activities, and for activities that take place over longer periods.” [iii]

In addition to being one of the last regions of the brain to evolve,[iv] the frontal cortex is one of the last regions to reach maturity during human development. Research shows that the frontal cortex develops rapidly in early childhood, with important changes occurring at particular ages (at the end of the first year of life, between three and six years, and around puberty), and “then continues to develop into adulthood. Grey matter, for example, doesn’t reach adult levels in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex until at least the end of adolescence, and myelination of this region continues into the 20s or possibly 30s.” [v] Myelination is the development of fatty tissue around nerve fibers that improves the transmission of electrical signals. This fatty tissue appears to accumulate especially slowly in the frontal lobe. Also, through late adolescence, much like in childhood, the brain grows an “excess” of neurons and synapses, and then goes through a process of pruning. What this means is that even late teenagers have not fully developed or ‘fine-tuned’ the area of the brain that they use to control impulses, make better mindful decisions, and delay gratification. [vi]

The more primitive parts of the brain can be pretty dominant without that frontal lobe keeping them fully in check. So when we ask teens to behave better, or mind their manners, or be more respectful, or hold their temper in check, or any other of the many demands we put on them, it is best to remember that their brains are still learning how to do this. I know some adults with fully evolved frontal lobes that still struggle to meet these ideals.

Another lesson I learned from my guru took place when I was trying to do off-leash training. This is comparable to when you are trying to give children a bit more freedom and trust. It was hard for Sammy to resist giving in to his impulse and running away to go exploring. The difficulty was that for learning to take place, for me to teach him about the consequences of running away, I had to be able to punish him that instant. If it took me a while to catch him (which it always did) the punishment would teach him nothing. The only purpose punishing him would serve was to vent my anger at chasing my dog around for half an hour or more. He would not link my reaction (the consequence) to the act of running away because they were separated by too much time. Worse, he might associate my reaction to coming back to me, which only serves to motivate him to stay away longer if he ran away again.[vii]

Now, I am not saying that a teen’s long term learning capacity is as limited as that of a dog’s (although some teenagers’ behavior may suggest so sometimes). But this still provides an important lesson. The best opportunity for learning is right in the moment of choice, when the teen is faced with acting on their impulse or obeying their parents’ rules. In that moment their impulses are much more powerful than remembering some possible future consequence. [viii]

 


[i] Coren, Stanley & Hodgson, Sarah (2007). Understanding your dog’s sense of smell [Electronic version]. Understanding your dog for dummies. Indianapolis, IN: Wiley Publishing Inc.

 

[ii] Bower, Bruce (2004, May 8). Teen Brains on Trial: The science of neural development tangles with the juvenile death penalty. Science News Online, (165)19. Page 299. Retrieved July 31, 2007, from http://www.sciencenews.org/articles/20040508/bob9.asp

 

[iii] Zelazo, Philip David (2005, July 29). Executive Function Part Four: Brain growth and the development of executive function. About Kids Health, Article 4365. Retrieved July 31, 2007, from http://www.aboutkidshealth.ca/ofhc/news/SREF/4365.asp

 

[iv] Mammals only developed this part of the brain in the last 200 million years, which is recent by evolutionary standards. Zelazo, Philip David (2005, July 29). Executive function part four: Brain growth and the development of executive function. About Kids Health, Article 4365. Retrieved July 31, 2007, from http://www.aboutkidshealth.ca/ofhc/news/SREF/4365.asp

 

[v] Zelazo, Philip David (2005, July 29). Executive Function Part Four: Brain growth and the development of executive function. About Kids Health, Article 4365. Retrieved July 31, 2007, from http://www.aboutkidshealth.ca/ofhc/news/SREF/4365.asp

 

[vi] Bower, Bruce (2004, May 8). Teen Brains on Trial: The science of neural development tangles with the juvenile death penalty. Science News Online, (165)19. Page 299. Retrieved July 31, 2007, from http://www.sciencenews.org/articles/20040508/bob9.asp

Packard, Erika. (2007). That Teenage Feeling: Harvard researchers may have found biological clues to quirky adolescent behavior. Monitor on Psychology, 38 (4), 20-22.

Kelly, Thomas P.; Borrill, Heather S.;  & Maddell Deborah L. (1996) Development and Assessment of Executive Function in Children. Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 1 (2), 46–51.

Zelazo, Philip David (2005, July 29). Executive Function Part Four: Brain growth and the development of executive function. About Kids Health, Article 4365. Retrieved July 31, 2007, from http://www.aboutkidshealth.ca/ofhc/news/SREF/4365.asp

 

[vii] Research into learning shows that efforts to discontinue an undesired behavior by using punishment are most successful if the punishment is consistently applied in the same way every time the behavior occurs, and as close to the behavior as possible. Domjan, Michael. (1993) Domjan and Burkhard’s The Principles of Learning and Behavior, 3rd Edition (pp.284). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.

 

[viii] Experiments in learning new behaviors have shown that when reinforcing or rewarding a behavior, the more immediate the reinforcer is, the stronger the subject will produce the correct behavior. While the promise of a reward in the future can be somewhat reinforcing, and may suffice for some kids, the best and strongest results are with an immediate reinforcer that the child finds motivating. Domjan, Michael. (1993) Domjan and Burkhard’s The Principles of Learning and Behavior, 3rd Edition (pp.149-153). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.

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