Lessons on anxious children from Pavlov and a labradoodle

Saffy, a 10 week old Labradoodle has joined our family and it has been an interesting reminder of how tuned in small mammals are to the emotions and moods that surround them.

Yesterday she barked at the doorbell. Our 8 year old Labradoodle doesn’t, but we can’t remember how she learned that, so back to basics, someone went to ring the doorbell a few times and my job was to make sure Saffy didn’t bark. The doorbell rang and she didn’t bark. I did nothing! She did nothing. And suddenly I realised that it wasn’t the doorbell that made her want to bark it was our response to the doorbell.

A lovely story in Brad Keeny’s “The Aesthetics of Change” tells of a researcher who took Pavlov’s experimental notes and reproduced his experiment with one omission. Pavlov rang a bell and then fed the dog. The dog, he said, became conditioned to the ring of the bell meaning food. The result was that when the bell rang the dog salivated. Konorski (1962) repeated the experiment meticulously but had a bell with no clanger. The dog still salivated. Heinz von Foerster (1976) said that the bell was a stimulus for Pavlov, not the dog!!

This interesting observation is relevant to anxiety in children. I have noticed these children are very tuned in, either to moods and emotions around them, or to other things that we may be unaware of. Culturally we have lost the distinctions to see what is actually happening for them.

If we go back in time to when these children’s abilities would have been useful to our tribe and look at how these abilities may have been recognised and mentored in children, there is not much to go on. There is quite a bit written on how Shamen and healers were able to recognise the kind of tuned in talents of children to choose who to mentor. But what about ways of tuning in to things other then healing?

What about the elders who had tuned in to where to find the buffalo. Who with years of experience couldn’t even say how they knew, but could always lead the hunters to the right place. They would recognise a fledgling talent in a child and encourage them.

What about the elder, who’s interest took them to develop sensitivities about when to plant crops, when to harvest them, about weather patterns, and who saw these fledgling sensitivities as they emerged in children.

What about elders who were tuned in to animals. Who could train the horses and dogs. Who knew when a herd animal was pregnant, or ill. Imagine the children who flourished under their guidance.

Now think of these tuned in children in our modern culture who have no mentors. Imagine they tune in… and not just to things going on in their small tribe, but with globalisation they tune in to all the pain and suffering in the world. Imagine they do school projects. Imagine they watch documentaries. Imagine they follow the news. They hear about the shrinking habitat and numbers of buffalo. They find out about global food production and world famine. Imagine they tune into global weather patterns rather than just their local environment, so instead of one bad storm in their lifetime they are aware of every natural disaster, past and present, and its impact on people. Imagine a child tuned in to animal wellbeing who might start with a family pet, but grows to watch documentaries in school on how animals are treated for food production.

If we could go back 30 years and imagine that, we might well imagine the explosion of anxiety in children.

Now, most children, when the doorbell rings, they just hear the doorbell. They are not tuned in to the response of the adults in their life. These children watch documentaries and aren’t deeply affected. These kids need mentors too but they find them easily in our modern world. When you see those kids who score well academically, who can be involved in service without suffering, who do well in sport, without feeling the negation of the competitive mood, for themselves and others, you see how well they are mentored in a way that is useful and appropriate to them. They find their natural self expression in the mainstream system of school and thrive.

But what of these other children? How can we help these kids? It would be great to identify them in infancy and know how to protect them. Turn off the TV, keep them connected in their small environment. Don’t bombard them with information. Try to work out what they are tuning into and let them explore it. These kids sometimes find mentors in a creative space. They do well at art school where being a bit weird and intuitive is valued. They can find like minded souls in an indie music scene, that values the way music evokes experience. Anywhere where experience is valued over cognition they find a place.

But what can we do for those children who have become anxious and have lost trust in themselves?

We had dinner last night with some wonderful colleagues to chew this conversation over. One of the quirkiest but most appealing ideas was to imagine a school like they had on X-men. It was called a school for the gifted, so all the parents thought that’s where their kids were going, but actually Charles Xavier was finding these kids, who had these abilities that they didn’t understand and were often scared of and he let them know there were others like them. He explained what was happening to them and let them know that he and others at the school could help them to learn about their powers so they could be useful and controllable. These kids went from fear and alienation, to finding a tribe and feeling understood and valued, and exploring their potential with a useful mentor.

Imagine that!


One thought on “Lessons on anxious children from Pavlov and a labradoodle

  1. Or Hogwarts. I’d apply for enrolment any moment.

    ‘Good families’ and people that are financially well off do not necessarily come with the ability to mentor their youth, as well as the people who are more visibly in need of guidance. How do you become a mature human? A level of formal education won’t necessarily be a reliable measure in this context. You don’t want to follow people with battle scars as a measure of life-experience either. Having no scar at all might be even worse. Some present themselves with all credentials but have no wisdom. Another have all the wisdom in the world and they can be so difficult to find.
    Why can’t things be as simple as receiving an invitation written with emerald green ink, and showing up at the platform 9 and three quarters?


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