Parenting lessons I learned from my dogs

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Several years ago, we got a pug puppy. Mugsy was a great dog in so many ways – affectionate, funny, and obedient. I prided myself in the training I had done with Mugsy. What I didn’t realize was it had very little to do with me at all. We were just very blessed with a dog of that temperament.

Unfortunately, Mugsy got cancer and passed away before he turned 5. Our hearts were broken, and we missed the love and companionship of a dog. After doing some research and checking out a lot of dogs, we rescued a beagle mix from the Humane Society.

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Molly was not quite a year old when we got her, and she had been found as a stray, so I went back into training mode. Even though Molly was equally wonderful and terribly sweet, she was not quite as compliant as Mugsy had been. When it came to push and shove, she would obey if I got stern with her, but otherwise everything had to be on her own terms. It took a couple of years to get her on board with my plans, and even then, she was inconsistent with it.

A couple years later, we decided Molly might enjoy a companion, so back to the Humane Society we went, and there we claimed Hunter, another beagle. Hunter was 3 years old and was a hunting dog who had been surrendered. Since he had been an outside dog all his life, training took on a whole new meaning with this little guy. He knew nothing of boundaries or manners. He was loud, insolent, and didn’t listen to anyone except my husband. And even then, he did not listen well! He has come a long way since then, and we’ve managed to coax out his affectionate side, but it has definitely been a gradual journey.

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It occurs to me that dogs and children have a lot in common. For one thing, I can’t manipulate them to do everything I want them to do. Even if I could, it would come at a cost – our relationship – and that’s not a price I’m willing to pay. Besides, I’m not raising little robots. I’m raising individual human beings, lovingly and purposefully created by the God of the universe.

Just as all of my dogs have been unique, so have all of my kids. The training that worked with my oldest child simply made no sense for his younger siblings. Just because one child was compliant in certain areas doesn’t mean the next one will be. They will each come with their own distinctive qualities, good and bad. Parenting requires more than just following the same patterns, especially as kids reach the teen years. (i.e. throw out the temptation to say, “This is how my parents did it, and I turned out just fine!”)

It’s easy to get frustrated when kids (or dogs) don’t do what we want them to do. I was able to train Mugsy to do his “business” in the park, so I could dispose of it there and not have to do poop patrol at home. I was miffed when I couldn’t get Molly or Hunter to do the same. I would come home from our walks, growling about it and irritated with them. And then I realized, this was not about them…it was about my own selfishness and pride. They weren’t doing anything wrong, and I was letting the situation steal the joy of our relationship.

This extends to my children as well. When one of them does something that annoys me, I have to step back and assess: Is this sinful behavior that needs to be addressed, or is this a control issue for me? I think of the Pharisees in Jesus’ time. They were great puppeteers, weren’t they? They were happy as long as the people did what they told them to do. And Jesus was not very impressed with them.

Realizing that, we will still be annoyed by behavior that does not line up with our ideals. In those situations, gratitude is the key to unlocking joy. I’m no theologian, but I think Jesus was trying to tell us this in Luke 17, in the cleansing of the ten lepers. Only one returned to express appreciation. Jesus asked where the others were and wondered why they hadn’t come to give God praise. He sent the one healed man off with a blessing, something the others missed out on, and clearly the man was full of joy. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to miss out on that.

Raising children can be irritating, for sure…but we can find joy in the process by being thankful. Make a list (at a time when your kiddos are being cherubs) of all the things you appreciate about them, and all the things God has provided for you as you care for your children. When irritation comes – and it will come – bring out that list and just start praising.

We just bid goodbye to our sweet Molly last week, and once again I was reminded of the brevity of life on this earth. It holds true of the time with our kids too. Our babies are born, we blink, and they are grown up. Make it your goal to “seek peace and pursue it” (1 Peter 3:11), even if it means you don’t get your way.

RIP Miss Molly

RIP Miss Molly

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