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Who’s the Good Boy? On “Train your Baby like a Dog”, or why Behaviourist Theory is inherently flawed

As far as the naming strategy goes for programmes that often end up on Channel 4, “Train your Baby like a Dog” is at least a transparent jab at sensationalism in order to encourage healthy viewing numbers. Music therapists, like many other therapists, study child development as well as the psychological theories needed to do the job - attachment, psychodynamic theory and behaviourist theory, often referred to disparagingly as “dog training for humans” - and so had some prior knowledge that the documentary was likely to be promoting behaviourist approaches to parenting.

When I worked as a music therapist for children with autism, it was the parents feeling desperate and tearful who had tried behaviourist theory to help their children (such as Applied Behaviour Analysis, commonly seen when working with children with autism). Their children were crying, becoming aggressive, not listening to others - it can feel exhausting. Parents spoke of finding themselves at breaking point, unsure how to go on, feeling very uncertain as to the quality of their parenting.

But the question always remained the same: who are these techniques really for?

Jo-Rosie Haffenden, an acclaimed animal psychologist and trainer of dog trainers, spoke a good game and, quite a lot of the time, explained her reasoning in a way that - on the surface - was difficult to argue with. She stated that behaviourist methods, unlike the punishing naughty step, emphasise “what we do want the children to do”, because “we need to have an understanding of a child and their relationships.” Later, she describes a child’s tantrums as “a cry for help, attention seeking is natural… if they didn’t seek attention they wouldn’t survive.” This is similar to what music therapists and others would advocate as useful theory when thinking about the relationship between children and their parents or caregivers.

In contrast, though, the voiceover talks of a child’s “obedience” and ability to “willingly perform tasks on command.” In the most shocking image of the whole show, Haffenden’s own son sits on command, on camera, and is rewarded by the verbal response, “good boy!” A parent who tries this on their own child is gently castigated by the other parent: “You’ve got to say it a little less like he’s an actual dog.”

The reason that what Haffenden herself says makes sense is not because of her dog training techniques - it is because she is appealing to each child’s sensibilities on the most human level. She is encouraging perspective from the child’s point of view, thinking about crying as a means of survival, an interaction at our earliest level of human need.

But the problem with these training methods, like all behaviourist theory, is that is doesn’t account for the power dynamic that is still inherent in the relationship, and the complexities of human relationships which cannot be distilled down into “good” and “bad”. Using a clicker to reinforce “good behaviour” provides no context to the child as to why a behaviour is good, beyond being able to perform a particular action reflexively.

Dulcie, the girl struggling with bath time, learned that if she put her feet in the bath without crying she was more likely to receive a white chocolate button. That doesn’t mean that she learned that bath time is ok and a necessary part of being a human and staying clean - she learned that if she performs a particular action it will result in an action from another bigger, more powerful human that will make her feel better in the short-term. That is the dehumanising aspect of this type of training that makes the programme as a whole so difficult to defend.

It would be cruel to denigrate the parents who took part in this show - they had issues with their children and were looking for answers, and their relief is palpable. But don’t be fooled that the child has understood anything more than action = reward.

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