Train your baby like a dog?!

By June O'Sullivan

| 19 August 2019

Last week, I had a panicky phone call from my friend Alice Sharp asking me to get on Twitter and read about the Channel 4 programme which proposes using a dog trainer to help parents manage their babies and toddlers.

This has caused outrage from many. Nursery World Magazine ran a piece on it which received comments from across the sector.

The title is particularly scary. The programme makers have clearly learned nothing from the debate that followed the suicides of vulnerable people on the Jeremy Kyle Show and the rejection by many of the cynical manipulation of people to attract audience rating. Can you imagine the indignation and anger if there was a programme called "Treat your Girlfriend like a Dog". So how is it OK to advertise a programme that advocates treating our children like dogs? Take that to a logical conclusion…

Of course, the programme makers have countered the criticisms by saying they had a psychologist on board and no child was harmed in the making of this programme. They justify this as an exploration of a new approach to childcare using positive behaviour motivational techniques. Perhaps they never heard of Pavlov?

Modern research and our better understanding of the brain tells us a lot more about the importance of helping children develop coping strategies that are linked to their age, stage and developmental ability to operate. I don't think that includes a dog whistle or a prod.

To some degree, the programme highlights the failure to understand children. It certainly (whether intentionally or not) exposes the modern childhood we have created where children are given no space to be.

Everything must be managed and controlled, and parents are pressuring themselves to achieve a state of perfection that's impossible for any child to deliver. It highlights how little we understand about the developmental journey of a child.

When my child was nine months old we were sitting in the baby clinic. A mum as well-groomed as Sarah Jessica Parker with a perfect doll like baby on her lap was sitting next to me. "How old is your baby?" she asked, "Nine months" I replied. "Ahh the same as Perfecta Marie, I am so proud of her - she is fully potty trained you know". That was a time when we boiled our nappies and admired how white they were on the washing line, so I was seized with irritation that I was still doing the nappies. Of course, now I know that the child's sphincter control is not developed enough for a child that young to be potty trained. In fact, I now know that what Mummy Dearest was doing was running around with a potty trying to catch her baby's urine before she wet the deep pile carpet and eventually figured out a sort of urine pattern!

I am glad that this programme has kicked up a stink. It highlights how cynical programme makers have seized on the nation's lack of confidence and anxiety about parenting small children. Our response to this programme should not just be outrage but a call for a National Conversation about Modern Childhood.

June O'Sullivan is chief executive of London Early Years Foundation. This blog first appeared on the LEYF website

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