31 January 2005

Single...With Children: Regardless Of Species, Love & Discipline Calm Rough Waters

Single With Children: Calm words, kind touches sooth stormiest hearts

By Susie Parker
Publication Date: 08/11/04

The other day I watched a news story that was a classic depiction of adolescent angst and rebellion.

To the parent of a young child or teenager, this probably will sound familiar.

Initially, things seemed to be going fine. The youngster in question was compliant and obedient. However, within a few minutes, this kid had suddenly switched gears and there was a REAL sea change.

Instead of doing what he was supposed to do, the rebellious adolescent launched into a tirade of tsunamic proportions. He refused to calm down and get with the program.

At first it was hard, even scary to watch. And to have it happen in broad daylight, in an extremely public setting must have added to the embarrassment and craziness of a situation that threatened to get out of hand. The caregiver seemed to be treading water in a pool of confusion and clearly felt as though he was being attacked by this obstinate young male who seemed just bent on breaking the rules.

Then the most amazing thing happened. When things looked as if they were spiraling perilously out of control, the tide turned.

The caregiver reached out and, very lovingly, calmly touched his young charge, reminiscent of when someone puts his hand on your shoulder and tells you it's really going to be OK, even if it doesn't feel as though it will. The flailing stopped and the kid responded to that touch, that feeling of reassurance that he was understood and loved, even when he was acting out of control and contrary to what he knew to be acceptable.

Quiet words were exchanged, more loving pats were dispensed and order was finally restored. The obvious affection and respect so evident between the two stars of this unscripted drama was just the kind of scene that reminds the rest of us that love is a potent force and can defuse the tensest of situations.

Love is more powerful than an adolescent tantrum and, in the end, maybe it is the boundaries, the limits, the knowledge that someone, the parent or guardian in a child's life, cares enough to enforce those parameters and can be counted on to stick around, even when things get out of hand, as things sometimes do.

Interestingly enough, this situation occurred not in a home, school or mall, but in the Shamu Tank at Sea World of Texas. The "parent" was a trainer named Steve Aibel, who had been taking care of Ky, a young killer whale, for 10 years. Aibel and Ky had been together since Ky was born, and a solid relationship of affection, respect and trust had been established.

It might seem like a stretch to compare the incident that occurred last week at Sea World with human parenting, but from what I saw watching the news video, the only real difference I could see between Ky's actions and those of a human teenager is that Ky experienced his tantrum in a saltwater-filled fishbowl in full view of 3,500 people while, thankfully, most of the adolescent skirmishes we human parents deal with occur on a much smaller stage, commonly accompanied by raised voices and a slamming door or two.

Even though Ky "spouted off" in a slightly different manner, the similarities were remarkable and the very same thing that calmed and soothed Ky, quiet words spoken in understanding tones and a gentle touch, apparently works amazingly well on both land- and sea-based adolescent mammals.

Ky's trainer was quoted as saying, "I wasn't frightened. I think that by being calm throughout the process - that helped to calm (Ky) down." He went on to express that it was his belief that using positive reinforcement, looking for a behavior to compliment, seemed to propagate even more.

As the single parent of a 17-year-old son, I confess that every now and then I am frightened. I wonder whether I'm making the right calls and choosing the correct battles. I'm not always so sure I'm getting it right. I know raising my children is the most important thing I will ever do.

I want to remember Aibel's advice, even if his "son" spends more time in the pool than mine does. Sometimes I forget to search for and acknowledge the positive things my son does. So eager am I to reiterate what NOT to do, that I pass up opportunities to compliment the things that he does well.

By remaining calm and not giving into panic, things usually do work out. Most of us , regardless of our age, respond very well to a kind word and a warm touch.

Readers can e-mail Susie Parker at susiewrites@gmail.com or write to her c/o Amarillo Globe-News, Features Dept., P.O. Box 2091, Amarillo, TX 79166.

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