Apparently, it is well known among canine behavior specialists that under similar situations dogs will look at human faces while wolves continue about their business – usually eating (“Why Is That Dog Looking at Me?” by James Gorman, New York Times, Sept. 15, 2015).
It also has been shown that when presented with the challenge of opening a food container that has been sealed shut, dogs will give up quickly and look to a nearby human, presumably for help. On the other hand, wolves raised by humans don’t look for help, suggesting that this looking to humans for help behavior may have a genetic component.
If the container of food has been altered so that it can be opened, but only with significant effort, the wolves will persist until they succeed. The adult dogs give up too quickly to succeed and instead look to humans. But, it is very interesting that in some preexperiment trials, at least one 8-month-old puppy kept at it until he was able to open the container, suggesting that in addition to some genetic influence, hanging around humans may foster what we might consider learned helplessness.
This observation wouldn’t surprise the product engineers tasked with developing child-resistant closures that can be easily opened by an adult. And I’m sure this evidence of learned helplessness in an animal wouldn’t surprise those who believe that welfare in any form is an abomination. As a card-carrying centrist, I will leave that argument to the polarizers on both ends of the political spectrum.
But I think this observation is most interesting because it raises the question of how often today’s parents are contributing to their children’s sense of helplessness. You only have to watch a child or grandchild tackle and construct a Lego project to realize that children are natural problem solvers. They get the trial-and-error thing. The problem is that too often we adults intervene at the first hint of failure, and in doing so, screw up the beautiful simplicity of the trial-and-error method of learning.
Watching someone struggle with a challenge for which you know the solution is difficult, particularly difficult if the struggler is your child or spouse. It is tempting to step forward and offer, “Here, let me show you how to do it.” Or, even worse, “Let me do it for you.”
To return to the canine world, consider the dog that brings a ball or stick to his/her master and then sits patiently waiting for the object to be tossed. If nothing is thrown, the dog will eventually give up and curl up for a nap. Puppies, on the other hand, don’t expect someone to initiate the game. They will paw at the ball until it moves or chase some unsuspecting insect playmate.
While offering children the chance to participate in organized sports is preferable to having them sit inside watching television or glued to a computer screen, the pendulum has swung a little too far toward the “organized” side of things. Too many parents seem unaware that if children are placed in an environment with room to run, a ball or two, and a few older children from whom they can model behavior, the children will organize themselves. They will figure out how to choose teams, make rules, and settle disputes.
The sad thing is that too many children have been offered so few opportunities to exercise their own powers of invention that they believe they are helpless to organize themselves. To them a sport is just a miniature version of what they see on television and comes complete with full uniforms, organized teams, sidelines lined with adoring fans ... and – of course – team pictures and trophies for everyone at the end of the season.
Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “Coping with a Picky Eater.” Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.