Whenever a young couple gets their first puppy together, snarky friends (and mothers-in-law) always seem to joke: "This is good practice for when you'll have kids".
That's easy to laugh off because of course human kids are totally different from dogs, right? Kids can understand language (eventually) and plan for the future. We raise kids to be independent thinkers while we raise dogs to be obedient underlings. How dare anyone seriously compare the massive responsibility of raising kids to the triviality of raising pets!
But deep down in our cells, we share a pretty significant 82% of our DNA with dogs. We were on the same evolutionary path with them for 97% of the history of life on Earth. Most parts of our brains are virtually identical to our canine cousins, and we share all the same neurotransmitters and fundamental motivations. It's just that humans simply have a larger cerebral cortex and thicker myelin sheaths that allow us to think more abstractly than other mammals.
I've learned these similarities first-hand as a dog owner, the parent of two great kids, and as Chief Product Officer of Brainscape, a learning platform based on decades of cognitive science research into how we learn. (Thank you to Brainscape's Academy team for letting me write this! And by the way please everyone go check out Brainscape's mobile early childhood flashcards. More on those in a bit.)
Over the years, I've increasingly realized that understanding how dogs learn and think can in fact give us tremendous insight into the underlying workings of our own more advanced minds, and into the minds of smaller humans whom we want to mold into the best adult versions of themselves. Today I'd love to share the SIX most important of such parenting tips.
Parenting tip # 1: Bonding & security
Parenting tip # 2: Energy & attention
Parenting tip # 3: Novelty, exploration, & play
Parenting tip # 4: Incremental Adversity
Parenting tip # 5: Reinforcement & delayed gratification
Parenting tip # 6: Skill transfer
Hi! We’re Brainscape
We’re the world’s smartest study app with a comprehensive, expert-curated collection of adaptive flashcards for kids! We’ve worked with experts in the realm of early childhood education to take the complete recommended curriculum for preschoolers—like your children or students—and turn it into a set of engaging flashcards help them master important knowledge and skills, like reading, counting, vocabulary, and more so that they can embark upon their schooling already well-versed in the fundamentals of communication, language, math, nature, and emotions.
Read ‘How to use Brainscape to teach your kids’, or check out this video, for the full scoop on getting the most out of our game-changing app:
But now, back to the task at hand: here are some of the best parenting tips I’ve learned from training my dog!
Parenting tips # 1: Bonding & security
Most of us would agree that our top priority with an infant or a puppy is the same: to provide for their biological needs and ensure that they are raised in an environment of safety and love. This isn't just humane; it is the prerequisite for cognitive and emotional development in all mammals. Neither a mouse nor a dog nor a human can develop normally if they are deprived of early security and positive socialization. Excessive stressors can inhibit attention that could otherwise be devoted to productive exploration and learning.
Providing food, a warm, safe environment, and affection are obvious ways to support this positive development. And one of the best tools we have to promote feelings of safety and bonding in others is our face and facial expressions.
It's been shown that both puppies and babies are instinctively drawn to faces among other stimuli. They're each able to make eye contact within the first six to eight weeks of age, both within their species and with other animals. And they both experience a surge of oxytocin (the bonding hormone) whenever looking into another's eyes in a positive way, especially when combined with physical touch.
We can leverage this principle of development by spending as much time as possible holding our little creatures, looking into their eyes, and talking to them expressively, especially very early in life. Give them opportunities to bond not only with you, but with many other people and dogs who will similarly provide positive touch and eye contact.
Just as puppies who have been improperly socialized can grow into anxious dogs who bark at everything and have accidents in the house upon any stressor, human infants deprived of parental and peer bonding can grow into insecure children and adults with learning disabilities and mental health issues that are much harder to address later.
Parenting tips # 2: Energy & attention
Many dog owners have heard the phrase "A tired dog is a good dog". This isn't just because they'll take a nap and stop bothering you. It's because a dog that gets lots of exercise has had an outlet for their built-up tension and energy, and thus benefits from a much calmer mind that is more receptive to bonding and learning.
Human children are no different. Both humans and dogs evolved over millions of years to spend the majority of our waking hours migrating, hunting, playing, and procreating. The problem is that today's humans and dogs spend most of our time in sedentary lifestyles, which have eroded not just our physical health but have also increased our anxiety.
Exercise is the antidote to fidgety behavior and poor attention spans. Getting plenty of exercise and movement, even in toddlerhood, decreases our cortisol levels (stress hormones) and further improves our parasympathetic system's activation as a prerequisite for cognitive development. Exercising also helps you, the parent (or dog owner), to let off your own steam and replenish those mitochondrial reserves that you'll need for good parenting later.
In other words, well-exercised caretakers and dependents are better able to slip into that shared "calm, assertive energy" that Dog Whisperer Cesar Milan always recommends as a prerequisite for any type of training.
A good morning jog (potentially even together!) will give us the afternoon composure we'll need to avoid abruptly yelling at and traumatizing our babies (both two- and four-legged), and it will also make them less likely to throw a tantrum or zone out when we want to work on practicing a new behavior later.
[Additional reading: How do you motivate a stubborn child to learn?]
Parenting tips # 3: Novelty, exploration, & play
One of life's most joyful experiences is to plop a toddler or a puppy into a playhouse with tons of toys, peers, and activities they've never seen before. Their curiosity and unshakable attention to exploration can be infectious. Young mammals are absolute sponges for new information, and it is the most beautiful thing to witness.
Our minds are hardwired to seek novelty and to constantly compare our stimulus to our mental model of how we already know the world works. Mentally reconciling that difference between "what I'd predicted I'd experience" and "what I'm actually experiencing" is the very mechanism by which learning works.
At early ages, it's simply that everything is novel to dogs and to us humans, so we're constantly exploring and updating our mental models. Sheltered children deprived from enough stimulus and socialization can otherwise end up with mental illness and trauma response later in life.
Baby mammals (humans included, obviously) feel instinctively compelled to look at, touch, sniff, and taste everything that is new, to the point where we can feel really upset (even incomplete) when we are forcibly removed from the stimulus before the novelty is sufficiently explored. My son goes nuts when I take the iPad away in the middle of a video or game before he's finished. My dog won't relax at a new person's house until she has sniffed every corner of every room.
The satisfying effect of novelty happens to be why homeless people tend to have dogs that are so calm and loyal that they don't even need a leash. While sheltered suburban dogs tend to go crazy barking at the slightest noise down the street, urban dogs with a homeless human owner have already "seen it all", as they have migrated through dynamic urban landscapes, have slept in dangerous alleys, and have already encountered most sights, smells, and sounds imaginable.
Humans, on the other hand, have a more infinite capacity for novelty because we are able to experience more abstract ideas. To even the world's smartest dog, every book, movie, song, story, machine, puzzle, or piece of artwork is essentially the same, since dogs lack the additional layers of cerebral cortex that would permit such abstract appreciation. To a human, however, those same stimuli are rich with novel understanding, enjoyment, humor, joy, intrigue, shock, and awe. The possibilities for novelty are limitless to the human brain.
Of course, understanding these huge benefits of constant novelty—not just as a way to develop well-rounded children but to develop their confident, curious energy—can often stress parents into thinking that we need to become "helicopter parents" who have to constantly ensure that our kids are exposed to productive and expensive forms of "newness".
But even just going for a walk or bike ride with your kids can produce endless new stimulus and conversation topics for a young child (not to mention exercising together). Every piece of sensory stimulus -- sights, sounds, smells, and new activities -- is a growth experience for a young developing mind. Just get out of the house!
Even if your child is so young that they're merely riding along in your backpack, taking a journey together will promote both (i) exploration of novelty and (ii) an important sense of bonding and "pack mentality" that will foster trust and attention to future development activities; especially if you're exchanging glances of eye contact throughout the journey.
The bottom line is that children and dogs are pack animals evolutionarily wired to explore. Sure, the little ones may occasionally encounter scary sights and sounds along their early journeys with you. But they will inevitably overcome those stressors while comforted with the knowledge that they are safe with you, thus making each adversity just traumatic enough to be in their sweet spot for growth.
Which brings me to my next insight…
Parenting tips # 4: Incremental Adversity
Think back to every formative accomplishment or experience that increased your self-confidence in a meaningful way. Each incident likely involved some prior difficulties and failures, which you were forced to overcome with a bit of pain and/or minor physical or emotional injury, until you achieved your goal or learned your lesson.
Our entire character is, in fact, the product of the millions of micro-adversities that we encounter and surmount throughout our lives. And it's the same with dogs. The trick to optimizing our development is to engineer our lives in a way that ensures that each adversity is just outside our "zone of proximal development".
If there is otherwise too much newness at once, it could either (i) go right over our heads due to lack of context, or even (ii) be so traumatic that its negative effects outweigh the positive effects from the novelty. Each cognitive or emotional challenge should mostly involve what we're already comfortable with, but should partly involve something new and just uncomfortable enough to require some effort to overcome.
Pro Tip: Brainscape’s early childhood education flashcards are designed to keep young learners in that zone of proximal development, where they’re seeing new words, colors, and numbers at just the right frequency for optimal engagement and learning.
This phenomenon of incremental adversity can be seen in all types of (4.1.) character development, (4.2.) skill-building, and (4.3.) knowledge acquisition, which I’ll now discuss.
4.1. Incremental character development
Imagine an infant or a puppy who had never been away from his mother (or owner) in his entire short lifetime. If you suddenly leave the baby alone in their pen for several hours, they will likely end up crying hysterically the whole time.
If, however, instead you were to begin a series of exercises where you, say, start with "peek-a-boo" and then gradually step into another room for 5 seconds, 30 seconds, 2 minutes, etc. over the course of a few weeks, then they will have built up the confidence that you—their caretaking human—will eventually come back and their separation anxiety will dissipate before that first inevitable long stint in the playpen alone.
Just like daily exercise or cold showers, short and small amounts of discomfort and recovery can lead to greater resilience in both dogs and children. (Again: Small amounts. Please don't traumatize anyone!)
4.2. Incremental skill building
It's the same with developing complex skills. My friend Avi once taught his black lab Toby how to go into the kitchen and bring him back a beer (in a koozie) from the fridge. At first glance it appeared that the dog was a genius who was able to understand language and the complex command that Avi had conveyed.
But that trick initially required the dog learning (and painfully failing at) multiple individual sub-tricks, over a long period of time, in the same way that teaching a kid algebra would first involve painfully learning the numbers and then painfully learning arithmetic.
The truth is: the more complex the skill, the greater the number of individual sub-skills that must first be mastered before achieving any greatness.
This is why Brainscape's mobile early childhood education flashcards are such a helpful part of any human child's development between the ages of 3 and 9. Our learning experts have broken down the concepts of reading, numeracy, life skills, and knowledge into their most fundamental building blocks that you can easily review with your child at their precise pace of learning.
How it works is simple! Each time your child answers a question incorrectly (a "micro-adversity"), you'd likely rate their confidence a 1 or 2 (out of 5), thereby ensuring that the flashcard repeats again relatively soon and giving you and your child an opportunity to upgrade their confidence to a higher rating (overcoming the previous adversity) and thus a longer interval until the next repetition.
Aside from optimizing your child's learning, the Brainscape method will help your child develop a sense of just how confidently they know each item, which is a metacognitive skill that will help them throughout the rest of their scholastic and professional life.
4.3. Incremental language acquisition
Even the uniquely human process of language acquisition involves constant incremental adversity. According to Krashen's Input Hypothesis, if everything you know about a language can be represented by the variable k, then the ideal amount of exposure for your next exercise should be k+1 -- e.g. a sentence that includes only one new word (the unfamiliar "adversity"), where everything else was already familiar to you previously.
This is the reason why a toddler learning Spanish through her nanny's incremental "baby talk" (one clear word at a time) will learn Spanish much faster than a toddler who only listens to fast-talkin' Univision news shows playing on TV in the background every day. The latter would simply go in one ear and out the other without the context and pacing afforded by incremental human (or AI) conversation.
My main takeaway here is that understanding the importance of incremental adversity can help any parent or dog owner to better understand why their rugrat is failing at a particular behavior, and to better break that behavior down into its component skills or conditionings that must first be learned in order to master the larger target conduct.
[Further reading: How to build your kids resilience (without traumatizing them)]
Parenting tips # 5: Reinforcement & delayed gratification
Now we're getting somewhere. Our kids and pooches are feeling safe, they're paying attention, and they're getting exposed to new experiences in just the right incremental doses to build upon their skills without being overwhelmed. There's just one missing ingredient for ongoing behavioral development: motivation.
It turns out that not all learning is as self-rewarding as chasing a ball or exploring the novelty of a walk around the city. Developing most advanced behaviors requires some form of artificial reinforcement that can be gradually weaned off until the motivation becomes fully intrinsic.
The classic forms of such artificial motivation are edible treats or a toy, which is given immediately upon completion of a target behavior. The instant and certain reward is a reliable way to establish positive association with the activity that would have otherwise felt like work.
It's the same reason why mobile game app developers always make Level 1 so full of points, badges, and accomplishments: to make our phone light up with excessive #winning! But then the rewards become progressively less frequent as the player advances. We are addicted to rewards.
5.1. Variable Reward
More specifically, we are addicted to variable reward. If your dog were to merely perform the "sit" trick over and over, for the same expected treat, they would quickly get bored, in the same way your kid would get bored by getting to play with the same toy every time they said "please" or "thank you". But tapering the reward schedule so that the treat or toy were only dispensed sometimes will keep your little gambler's brain constantly on alert and willing to perform. Our video games similarly make their levels and badges progressively harder to achieve as the rewards become more variable over time.
The major difference here is that children can learn to endure a much larger amount of variability or delay before receiving their reward (compared with dogs), thanks to the power of language.
Sure, your language-less dog can still ultimately learn to potty outdoors or perform tricks without any more rewards after the behavior has become more intrinsic. And sure, dogs who are taught to be patient for a few seconds or minutes before receiving a treat (like these pooches) tend to become the most well-behaved dogs.
But try getting your dog to stay in one place for more than 5 minutes while you've gone into another room. (Or even just 5 seconds for some dogs!) There's no hope of explaining to a dog: "If you behave well now, then you'll get a reward later." Without language, dogs simply lack the capacity to think so abstractly about the future.
Parents should thus take advantage of children's unique human ability to understand longer reward horizons, by helping them learn to wait longer and longer for their gratification.
5.2. Building the Delayed Gratification Muscle
We've all met spoiled kids and dogs who whine incessantly when expecting a treat or toy for every good thing they do, no matter how tiny. With kids, however, we are better equipped to combat entitlement through the setting of longer-term goals that require sustained effort.
For example, a new first-grader might only be persuaded to do his homework if receiving a reward immediately after completion (e.g. dessert or screen time today). Gradually, those rewards can become more variable or on a longer time horizon. ("Do your homework today, and we can maybe see a movie this weekend.")
And at some point, you can just offer one large reward for the student's final grades at the end of the semester, until the point where your budding valedictorian will be self-motivated enough to achieve good grades without any medium-term material motivation—because they've broadened their academic reward horizon to their future career (thanks to longer-term dreams you're also helping to instill).
[Your child may even be continuing to use Brainscape's adaptive flashcards for many ongoing subjects in school, long after they complete the early childhood flashcards that you'd worked through with them during their earlier years.]
Helping children learn to increasingly delay their gratification is indeed one of the best lasting behaviors that you can bestow onto them early in life.
The famous 1972 Stanford "marshmallow test" experiment showed that 3-5 year-old children who were best able to delay gratification (by waiting 15 minutes before eating a marshmallow) ended up achieving significantly greater academic, career, and health outcomes decades later than children who could not wait for the delayed reward (which was receiving two marshmallows).
To further help your younger child develop patience, you might consider giving them a greater sense of control by often allowing them to choose whether to delay their gratification, through your sneaky manipulation of the decision economics. (e.g. "Do you want 5 more minutes of iPad time now before you brush your teeth? Or do you want to brush your teeth now and get 10 minutes of iPad time after?")
Over time, children who have built strong delayed gratification muscles can become so accustomed to choosing the "work now, play later" option that you'll no longer have to rig the game for them. They'll have the muscle memory to eat their vegetables first, do their chores first, and brush their teeth first because it'll be embedded into the core of their character.
The main point here is that your mindful allocation and timing of rewards is an important part of raising children—and dogs—to become intrinsically motivated adults with a strong sense of self-control.
Parenting tips # 6: Skill transfer
The final parenting tip I've learned painfully as both a parent and dog owner has been the importance of repeating new behaviors in different settings before they become too associated with just one environment.
I remember once being so proud of how well my 9 month-old puppy had learned her tricks and bladder control at home, only to be mortified when she first visited a friends' house, as she peed in every corner and seemed to completely forget how to "sit" or "lie down" on command.
Then a few years later, my kindergarten daughter would similarly shock me with her vanishing manners the moment she was with her friends or staring at a new iPad app.
The inconvenient truth is that even though frequent novelty is important as a way to capture attention and reduce anxiety in the long run, learning how to tune out exciting novelty while executing a higher priority skill or communication can be just as critical for any mammal.
As caretakers, we therefore need to take every opportunity we can to reinforce newly-learned behaviors while we are out on our joint explorations or social outings.
Make it a habit to practice eye contact in a variety of places. Try asking questions or issuing commands in potentially distracting situations. And for human children, you might consider popping open the Brainscape mobile app to study a quick round of early childhood education flashcards together, which can be done anywhere that you have your phone or iPad with you!
The crux here is that we need to ensure that our little sponges' skills are fully internalized and not just associated with, say, the kitchen table at home, or only when talking to mommy.
This is the same reason why parent/teacher communication is so important as early as daycare and preschool, and why "play dates" are such important early exercises in maintaining learned manners both inside and outside the home.
Rather than taking newly-learned good behaviors for granted, we should give our learners as many opportunities to practice the behaviors in new situations before later being disappointed that the skills were not as transferable as we'd thought.
A labradoratory for development
Upon reflection, it appears that dogs might in fact be "good practice" for having kids after all. Our shared primitive brain structures and chemistry present a ton of opportunities for better comprehending human development through the experience of raising a canine.
With this better understanding of the concepts of security, energy, novelty, incremental adversity, and delayed/variable reward structures—and armed with Brainscape's early childhood education app—you'll now be able to help your child establish the more fundamental cognitive and emotional skills so that they can graduate to the more uniquely human skills -- like (gasp) learning to think independently and question authority.