The wisdom of children

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Some years ago, I visited a family of two adults and four children, the youngest of whom was five years old. They were desperately in need of help with the behaviour of their two-year-old Springer Spaniel who I shall call Sam. He was considered to be the ‘naughtiest dog’ they’d ever known. When asked to list his various misdemeanours in the pre-consultation questionnaire, after reaching about number ten on the list (which happened to be stealing tea towels), the mother of the family had given up, simply stating that there were ‘too many to mention’.

He was also thought to be disobedient, not ‘listening’ and ‘never doing anything he was told’. Going upstairs when told not to was a major crime and when asked how often the dog looked guilty, the answer was ‘all the time’.

Pretty much the only thing Sam hadn’t done was bite anyone.

After a relatively short time of being in the house, by which time it was becoming abundantly clear that the dog spent much of his day being yelled at, the youngest child piped up, ‘You know, Mum, you just can’t make him do what he doesn’t want to!’


Illustration by Victor Ambrus.

His mother shot him an extremely dirty look. My ill-advised quip that I should leave now and allow the boy to explain his words of wisdom by himself went down like the proverbial lead balloon. But with seemingly precocious understanding, he had hit the behavioural nail on the head.

I have already addressed many of these common misunderstandings elsewhere but the particular interest to me in this case was two-fold.

1.How and why had the young boy appeared to have such accurate insight? How could he see with such clarity what was going wrong in the family’s relationship with their dog when his mother appeared ignorant of it?

2.Were some of Sam’s actions considered by the family to be ‘misdemeanours’ for spurious reasons and, as such, were they creating unnecessary conflict?

First issue

Thinking about it afterwards, it occurred to me then that children may suffer from many of the same inconsistencies in response from their parents as dogs do. Many of their decisions as to what to do and how to behave are made on the same basis as for dogs. They may do their homework to stop their parents’ crossness and nagging or to avoid missing out on a TV programme they want to watch. They may alternatively force down the cabbage or broccoli as they are promised ice cream afterwards. Or they may simply be children who like doing their homework and eating broccoli, therefore appearing to need no such threats or inducements.

Premack’s Principle


In 1965, psychologist David Premack proposed that a higher probability behaviour can be used to reinforce a less probable behaviour. He had realised that behaviours themselves could reinforce others and increase their frequency. Premack’s Principle is frequently applied in child rearing and dog training. It is also known as relativity theory of reinforcement or “Grandma’s Rule”. The example often given of how high and low probability behaviours interact as they apply to children is eating greens (a low probability behaviour) compared to eating ice cream (a high probability behaviour). The moniker of ‘grandma’s rule’ seems to have been coined owing to the propensity of grandmothers over countless years for making a sweet pudding contingent upon children eating their vegetables first.

What had this child realised about Sam with such percipience and instinct beyond his years? That their dog had to want to comply. This was regardless of the reason why behavioural decisions were made, or the means whereby outcomes of a chosen behaviour were made clear (‘grandma’s rule’, ‘do it or else’ or the lure of a lollipop). And so, perhaps without being overtly aware of it, he had experienced these various means of inducing compliance so much himself that he assumed, quite rightly, that the same ought to apply to Sam. Continually attempting to force children or dogs against their will to do something they didn’t want to do was on a hiding to nothing.

Some years ago, I recall a media furore resulting from the suggestion, as if it were a new idea, that children who misbehaved in class should be rewarded if their behaviour improved, however marginally. Many complaints arose as a result of the misinterpretation that children were rewarded for being ‘naughty’ in the first place and that ‘good’ children were left out. Interesting conversations arising on this subject can still be found on the Mumsnet website from 2008 (

DD and I were discussing a boy in her class (Y3) who lives round the corner, and she said that he sometimes gets chocolate from Mrs. S (classroom assistant).

‘Why?” I asked.

‘Well, it’s because he is a naughty boy and if he’s good for a week Mrs S gives him chocolate.’

‘So what do you get for being good all the time, DD?’


‘Do you think that’s right?’


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Jun 21, 2021 | Posted by in GENERAL | Comments Off on The wisdom of children

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