What I Learned About Parenting While I Taught a Rat to Play Basketball.
Like millions of others I spent Christmas day with my kids.
My kids are grown and some of their kids are pretty much grown so today I watched them interact and thought about the people they’d become.
It wasn’t like an out of body experience, but it was still a little strange. I found myself remembering random childhood days and events. Making a California Mission the year each one was in the 4th grade. Why were we always still up at midnight adding tiles to the roof and gluing little trees made of sticks and florist moss around a courtyard?
I remember laughing with my youngest daughter as we listened for the pop sound when I turned the key on her orthodontic expander. That’s a little gizmo that slowly stretched out the roof of her mouth so she’d grow up with a beautiful smile. I’ll never forget the twinge of fear at the first inkling of serious rebellion with another daughter. Or the absolute panic of rushing around Jerusalem like Mary & Joseph searching for our 12 year old son who’d decided he could lead part of our tour group into the old city all on his own because he’d been there before.
Looking at them today I was filled with thankfulness for the people they’ve become. People I would want as friends. That’s a blessing beyond description. Watching them interact with kindness, joy, and love sparked a warm glow way down deep in my heart. Of all the blessings in my life, and there are many, knowing that we successfully navigated the vast ocean between childhood and adult status is one of the greatest. Whew!
And then out of nowhere came the memory of Sara.
Sara with her beady eyes and little pink feet and super long tail.
She was my ‘laboratory animal’ for a behavioral psychology class and I taught her to play basketball.
Trust me, it’s not as easy as it sounds.
I didn’t go to college until I already had three children. Lousy timing, but that’s a long story. So when I brought Sara home I had three kids who thought she was like the hamster, just another rodent in a cage, a pet. The problem was that they didn’t realize she was on a strict feeding schedule designed to have her sufficiently hungry and therefore ‘food motivated’ during a 3 hour lab segment. I had 18 weeks to teach her to drop a Nerf basketball about the size of a cotton ball through a hoop at one end of a cage. The first two weeks I got nowhere with Sara. It would have been 3 weeks if not for a chance comment my son made that tipped me off to the unintentional sabotage of my carefully designed feeding schedule. My kids had in effect fed her the equivalent of a Thanksgiving feast each Monday before I took her to the lab for our session.
Let’s circle back to the beginning of this post.
Today, maybe for the first time in 30 years, I remembered how intently and patiently I watched Sara for the slightest movement toward the hoop end of the cage. Sara and I were 2 weeks behind everyone else in the experiment. It took all of my powers of concentration to catch her every movement toward the target behavior. I had to notice and reward every time she touched the Nerf ball, every time she touched the dot on the cage wall, and every time she rose up and sniffed the hoop. BAM, food reward.
It made me a better parent.
It demonstrated powerfully how a positive reinforcement can shape behavior. You see, I was the one that really was trained.
Trained to watch for constructive behavior in my children and reward it.
Before Sara, I was a cop watching for violations.
After Sara, I became a cheerleader watching for the smallest movement in the right direction.
If they shared a toy or offered a turn on the swing I rewarded the deed by saying “good job” or “that was great of you to share”.
I made a million mistakes as a Mom, but thanks to a rat named Sara I learned to notice the good stuff.
Parenting is demanding, but children respond to praise.
If I could go back to my early days as a mommy I’d give myself a little advice: learn to notice the good stuff.
And say something about it in the moment 🙂
You’re gonna be fine.