This month my reading has been all about training dogs or children. Training one requires patience and kindness to build confidence, the other dominance, stern punishment and endless rote learning administered by a stern task-master. And probably not for the ones you think either.
The stern approach, of course, is for the kids. Earlier in the month I picked up Amy Chua’s controversial Battle Hymn of The Tiger Mother, a memoir of one family’s experience of using a disciplinarian style of parenting that Chua calls “Chinese parenting”. It offers a very different perspective on child-rearing and building confidence.
“Chinese parents can order their kids to get straight As. Western parents can only ask their kids to try their best. Chinese parents can say, “You’re lazy. All your classmates are getting ahead of you.” By contrast, Western parents have to struggle with their own conflicted feelings about achievement, and try to persuade themselves that they’re not disappointed about how their kids turned out.”
The book-jacket quotes say Battle Hymn is humourous and sparky, and it is, but it wasn’t the kind quotes on the cover that propelled this book to New York Times best-sellers top ten but other, less favourable quotes. Readers and reviewers called her a an inhuman mother and a menace to society, and her nickname quickly become Mama Grisly. I read this book occasionally gaping in horror at her methods and, frankly, if she had been my mother I suspect I would have run away from home. But with one of her own children taking to the papers (and the book’s afterword) to thank her mother for a life lived at 110%, her training methods does seem to have some advocates.
Battle Hymn’s method of training children is probably less gentle than the two other books I read this month. Dogswise and The Only Dog Training Book You’ll Ever Need both advocate gentleness, kindness, consistency and the importance of rewarding good behaviour rather than constantly shouting “Bad dog!”, which I suspect some dogs eventually come to believe is their name. (Ours certainly did, along with “Stop that!” and “Don’t eat the postman!”)
Why dog-training? Well, I’m hoping to get a dog in the next few months and I’m not sure my vague memories of my twelve-year old self teaching our smart but neurotic border collie how to high-five will be up to scratch when confronted with a new puppy. Lacking the severe nature needed to raise anything with Chua’s method, I’ve been reading up on clicker training, dog psychology and – I admit it – how to train a dog to get your book from the bed-side locker. Don’t judge me. It’s a useful skill.
Not actually a training book, but coming under the category of interesting application of real-life skills, comes this story from England – forensic detectives rescue writer’s manuscript. Trish Vickers lost her eyesight to diabetes seven years ago but continues to write long-hand in pen. Her son Simon comes over once a week to read her work back to her and help her revise but, during one visit last year, Simon found 26 blank pages instead of the latest installment – her pen had run out.
Rescue came from an unlikely quarter – the Dorset police fingerprints’ section. They took the manuscript and, working in their spare time, used various methods to track the indentations made by the pen and thus reveal the text. Apart from one line, they managed to recover the lot. And they didn’t just rescue her writing, the police also gave her book a thumbs-up, as Trish was delighted to report. “The police also said they enjoyed the bit they read and can’t wait for the rest.” She has promised them that from here on in she will double-check her pens are full of ink so they can definitely enjoy the story when it’s done.
Which shows that whether you are training a child, a dog, or even an aspiring writer, a few kind words can go a long way towards getting things done.