Pippin loves to herd. He loves to herd alpacas, which is a good thing because this is his job on the farm. He herds turkeys, which is not his job. He tries to herd people, which is often amusing and harmless. He herds cats, which is next to impossible.
But he also tries to herd cars, which is downright dangerous.
Pippin is a mini-Australian shepherd and sheltie cross. For him, herding is an instinct. It is part of who he is. We cannot prevent him from herding, nor would we want to. When he goes for the cars, however, we wish the herding instinct had an off switch! Because he cannot help it, it becomes our job to keep him safe: we warn guests to slow down on the driveway, we try to keep him inside when we’re expecting someone, we call him to our side to keep him out of harm’s way.
Pippin is also still a puppy, and he loves to chew! Or more like, Pippin needs to chew. His favorite flavours are socks and shoes. He is partial to sandals and flip flops – perhaps something about the saltwater smell. We have come to the place where we expect something to be destroyed when we come home from being away, even just for a few hours. The question becomes: what will it be this time? It becomes a bit of a game (although not a fun one). Will it be my daughter’s favorite flip flops? My husband’s wool socks? My expensive sandals? Again, this is an instinct for Pippin. He is driven to it.
Now, I believe he knows it is wrong. When the mauled shoe is held up in front of his face, he winces and takes his “I’m sorry” pose. However, in the moment, there is no hesitation, no memory of the appropriateness of his chosen snack. He just needs to chew! And chew he does. Because he cannot help it, it becomes our job to keep our treasures safe. We put things up high, we put shoes in boxes, we close doors. He still finds things to chew, like a game of Uno in a scrumptious cardboard box, but we can minimize the damage.
Our children, too, have instincts. Emotions are stirred up within them, and they are often moved by frustration, by alarm, and by pursuit. When something isn’t working, they often act impulsively out of these instinctive places.
They forget in their frustration that it is not okay to hit or that they care about their little sister. They may remember before, or after, but not in the moment! It therefore becomes our job to keep them, and their siblings, out of harm’s way. Can we find out what isn’t working for them? Can we find something else to hit, or find another way to get the frustration out?
If they are getting in trouble at recess, if their impulses keep getting the better of them, it is our job as adults to come alongside and keep them safe – maybe a run around the track together, maybe a visit to the library, maybe a special project to keep them out of harm’s way.
It may be that when a young child anticipates going to school, they may move to pursue, clinging to mommy and refusing to go. They forget in the moment that mommy will still be there, or that part of them likes school. All they feel at the time is the alarm and they are moved to keep close.
These are instincts. By nature, instincts are impulsive. As a child grows older, they become more capable of tempering these instincts, bringing in the ‘on-the-other-hand’ thoughts and feelings. But this doesn’t happen until at least age five, and even then can take years, especially when the feelings are intense. Goodness knows that as adults, we still have trouble tempering our own instincts and emotions! And I am not sure when this happens for puppies …
And so, while we wait for our children to mature, it helps to see that instincts are a natural part of being a child. While I wait for Pippin to remember in the moment (instead of after the fact), that it is not okay to chew his family’s belongings or herd cars, it calls for patience and creativity on my part – patience in not expecting Pippin to be other than a puppy, and creativity in finding ways to keep everyone (and everything) safe.
We can anticipate the instincts, the heightened emotion, and move to change their circumstances. Or we can move to help our children release the built up frustration for all the things that aren’t working for them – through words, through throwing sticks in the water, through screaming (just maybe not in the grocery store or at your mother-in-law’s!), or through the tears of disappointment.
And we will undoubtedly need to make adjustments and compensate for our youngsters’ impulsive instincts. In Pippin’s case it meant finding him a chew toy, something he could destroy without getting in trouble. It meant finding him something else to herd (and keeping him away from the sheep and the ducks next door!), taking him on walks, letting him run outside to get some of that energy out. Once we see what is needed, we can find our way to the child’s side, trusting that nature has a plan.