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Friday, June 19, 2015

Acting, Reacting and Interacting

Bow reacts to different stimulus in different ways. He gets excited by Lady Gaga, he feels warm affection toward Julie Andrews, he wants to help the dogs catch the rabbits that he sees on the screen. But sometimes he really does just listen to music. For instance, see how he swayed yesterday to the beat of Country Roads -- the Hayao Miyazaki version?

I ran out of space on my iphone, so the camera cut out in mid-dance, but Bow was swaying gently to the music till the end of the song. He gets music! He told me once that he can sing better than I can. I laughed at him, but I think maybe he had a point, though he had trouble expressing what he really meant.  I tend to sing off-key. Bow would never do that, because he has perfect hearing. If only he had a human voice to go with that, he could blow any song out of the water!

I am very careful to try to give Bow a chance to express himself, which means that he can say outrageously improbable things to me, and I will give him what I consider a fair hearing. But in other ways I am very strict with him, in the sense that infractions involving disciplinary issues are not tolerated. It is the way I was raised. I had perfect freedom to express my opinion, but not destroy other people's things or hurt anyone. It is possible to bring a child up to be obedient, but not oppressed.  However... in the "liberal" atmosphere in which we currently live, there are many people have trouble with this concept.

Here is a valuable piece on disciplining children by Leslie Fish:

The issue of discipline goes beyond children to all our relationships. If we want to be able to get along with someone over an extended period, the ground rules need to be set from early on, not just for our own comfort, but also so that the other person can understand foreseeable consequences and make informed decisions. It's not all just about free will. It is also about forced choice.

Here is an article I wrote a long time ago to help my interns learn how to interact with Bow:

The other day I saw a meme that said: "You can't control how other people treat you. You can only control how you react." I don't think that's true. I think that if you wait until somebody does something really bad to you and then react to it, it's too late. You need to help other people control their behavior by heading off bad behavior at the pass. You can't always be reactive.

The reason society has penalties for criminal behavior is not just to punish wrongdoers after the fact . It is also to prevent many others from ever committing a crime, for fear of the consequences.While nobody has a remote control switch to directly control another person's behavior, we all have the ability to change the behavior of those within  our sphere of influence, and if we are doing it right, we are not merely reacting to things we don't like -- we are preventing bad behavior before it even arises.

The interns who did well with Bow were able to project that they were big and strong and somebody to be respected -- even when they were small women and in fact less powerful than Bow. The interns who ended up having to leave were those who made Bow feel that he could walk all over them -- even when they were much taller and heavier than he was. It's not all about physical strength. A big part of it is attitude. And because we never want to have an actual physical confrontation with Bow, attitude is extremely important. It's the difference between being active and being reactive.

Having active control over a situation is like the difference between driving by making wild corrections to the trajectory of your car every time you notice it veering off course and making small, minor adjustments that are barely noticeable, by foreseeing possible difficulties before they arise. Other people are not a car, but a relationship with another person is a situation you can control before it gets out of hand, by presenting the other person with a series of forced choices that keep him on course. This does not mean that you are brainwashing anybody. They still have free will. You are just making it very clear to them what their choices are.

Take that kitten, for instance. It knows that I am freaked out by seeing it outside the barn. I know it must wander around freely all the time, but it is smart enough not to let me see that.

There has been rain every day, and parts of my property are flooded, so I wear big rubber boots.

Yesterday, as I was heading toward the barn, I saw the kitten pop out from under the wall for a moment, bound out toward me, then think better of it, and go back in the barn, to wait for me to open the door. Then it came out and rubbed itself against my big rubber boots.

I haven't done anything to the kitten, and yet somehow it knows how to behave around me. It knows I don't want to touch it. It knows I will only set down the food dish if it backs off a little so I don't make contact with it. It is very affectionate toward me, but it understands my boundaries.

I am allergic to cats, so I simply will not touch the kitten, no matter how weird that seems.


We can control another person's behavior in many ways. If we don't want to be touched, we can move away and send non-verbal signals to the other person to back off. We can control their behavior by showing them how we react to someone else, so they can learn by example and need  not ever be in a situation to receive that reaction from us. And we can control their behavior by limiting the situations in which we interact with them and giving them forced choices about entry and exit.

Have you ever seen how someone lets another person know that it is time to leave without even saying a word? Sometimes they just get up, or even adjust their posture, and the other person knows the visit is over. That is behavior control! You do it all the time. You react to it all the time, when others do it. It is nothing to be ashamed of, and it's just a natural part of how people interact.

If you want to be in control of a situation, you can't always wait to react. Sometimes you have to act before anything bad can even begin to happen. And being a good caretaker often involves realizing that the person you are with does not have complete control over his own behavior. For instance, if you know that your toddler has a meltdown every day after preschool, then it's probably not a good idea to take him to the store after preschool. It's not a matter of discipline. It's just a matter of practicality. You take the child home where he can have that tantrum in his room, because you know the tantrum is inevitable, but the public embarrassment is not.

Managing others means also being aware of their limitations. You do not put a hurdle before a blind man. You don't force a child who can't sit still to attend a lengthy church service. And you can't expect an active post-pubescent male chimpanzee to go a whole day without displaying. So you accommodate the behavior, but you don't allow it to occur in a way that would be harmful to anyone.

Can you  control other people's behavior toward you? Absolutely. You probably already do many of these things without thinking about them. And it's not bad. Most of the people whose behavior you control are probably happy that you are in control of the situation. They would actually be upset or frightened if somebody were not helping them to keep their own behavior under control.


  1. I think non verbal cues are very important, and we do this all the time in social settings.