“When a child hits a child, we call it aggression. When a child hits an adult, we call it hostility. When an adult hits an adult, we call it assault. When an adult hits a child, we call it discipline.” — Dr. Haim Ginott
Recently, I came across a documentary film that really impacted me. It was the story of a cowboy named Buck Brannaman, who many refer to as a “Horse Whisperer.” In watching the behavior of the violent horses that Buck was helping, I realized the incredible similarity to human orphans, foster kids or simply kids who have had their spirits broken. The major reason Buck is so in tune with these horses is because of years of severe physical and mental abuse he suffered as a young boy at the hands of his alcoholic father. It finally stopped thanks to a P.E. teacher who observed deep overlapping scars on Buck’s back and buttocks (Buck would not take showers at school, and the PE teacher finally found out why that one fateful day).
Buck’s experiences of his tragic childhood now help him to recognize in difficult horses the same fear and hostile reactions he remembered from his own childhood.
Horses have incredible sensitivity in touch, sight, sound and scent. But, their most intriguing sense is what appears to be a deep sense for reading and understanding human emotions. Similar to other very social animals like dogs, not only do they seem to have a keen ability to sense our emotions and emotional state, but it appears to directly control their ability to heal and to develop. It is many of these attributes that makes young horses so similar to our children.
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Like young horses, our children can be so fraile and delicate —– their spirits easily broken by harsh parenting. I can relate to this because this is how I once was: One of the main mistakes we parents make is that we react too quickly, and scold or punish the child before assessing whether or not the behavior or event was due to an intentional misbehavior. Many times we also tend to use corporal punishment as a discipline or teaching method, either because of family tradition or the false belief that it works for building positive, long-term outcomes. What I have found is that if we parents will allow natural consequences to work, and focus on teaching instead of punishment, it can result in a profound positive change in our child’s behavior and development, and in the parent-child relationship.
In watching Buck’s taming techniques, it was obvious that you absolutely cannot tame horses at a pace faster than what it takes to gain trust. This is exactly like molding or building our children: we need to go slow, be firm but patient with them, while at the same time building close relationships with them by showing affection and reflecting back to them their positive attributes!
Unfortunately, a high percentage of kids in juvenile detention (over 70,000), and those headed in that direction, are those who were deprived of this affection and these reflections when they were children. Studies indicate that a high percentage of these kids either grew up in fatherless homes — a main source of positive reflection and social development was not present — or in affectionless homes where the primary teaching method was corporal punishment.
I believe our responsibility as parents includes helping our children see the reflections of their own positive attributes, and to use those daily parenting and teaching practices that ensure our children have the opportunity to achieve their full potential as human beings.