The Kid Whisperer

The challenges of finding the best discipline strategies for your family.


I used to be a regular viewer of “The Dog Whisperer”—until I got a dog. Don’t get me wrong, I still think the show’s star, Cesar Millan, has a near-supernatural ability to communicate with animals. However, no matter what the breed of dog or the personal circumstance of the owner, Cesar’s solutions always seem to come down to exercise, discipline and affection.

While my confident, independent Scottish terrier, Heath, will never be mistaken for Lassie, we have come to a simple understanding. As long as I walk him twice a day, feed him according to schedule and give him the requisite number of belly rubs, he won’t tear up the house or use my ankle as a rawhide chew. Basic dog training seems to have less to do with whispering than it has to do with consistency, which Heath craves as much as a meaty dog treat.

Wouldn’t it be great if parenting were so straightforward? I could poke my son, Kennedy, in the ribs and make Cesar’s trademark “sshht!” sound, and he would pop to attention and start diligently double-checking his math homework. Right now, that task is achieved with a lot of prodding and nagging. But it does sometimes end with Cesar’s sound—only with the addition of a certain vowel.

Now that Kennedy is in his tweens, tried-and-true parenting strategies such as tag-teaming and good cop/bad cop don’t work as well as they used to. At this age, kids are becoming experts at picking up body language and other nonverbal communication. It’s increasingly difficult for parents to maintain a united front when their little Napoleon will notice an arched eyebrow or pregnant pause, indicators of a difference of opinion, and try to divide and conquer them.

But it’s not only reading body language, it’s reading—and watching—in general. Just the other day, after a scolding/argument, Kennedy’s “apology” went something like this: “Dad, I’m really sorry that you got upset over that thing I did.” I paused, impressed almost as much as I was perturbed. What’s next? “Dad, mistakes were made.” I’m not sure where Kennedy learned how to use the non-apology apology, but it’s clear that he’s not only playing video games or watching music videos on his iPad.

Cyd and I have a hard enough time keeping our daily schedules synced, so we’ve recently given up on the idea of a coordinated parenting strategy. Instead, we decided on a simpler approach: What one parent says, goes. No debate, no negotiations, no questions asked. We’ll hold the line together, even though we may not know where that line is located at any given moment. This may seem like an obvious approach for many, I know. But I think we—like many other harried, inexperienced parents—tend to view discipline, structure and routine negatively, things that are reactive, punitive and lack creativity. We forget that we also thrive when we have a little stability and consistency in our lives.

Well, that’s the idea. But, just in case it doesn’t work, I’ve been practicing how to make Cesar’s trademark “sshht!” sound without using any vowels.