Always work with kids and animals

Puppies in IrelandBack in my film days I would hear actors say, “Never work with kids or animals.”  Now this makes total sense if your livelihood depends on people paying attention to you, since kids and animals are naturally magnetic to the eyes, particularly when on screen alongside actors. 

This offers potential insight into both the alienating falseness that permeates our screens big and small, and the redemptive power of authenticity and relatedness as taught by kids and animals.

In a recent article by Amy Novoteny in Monitor on Psychology, it is suggested that a great way to get kids to “listen” is to get a dog—particularly in helping special needs kids.  Researcher Nancy Gee, PhD found that special needs children were better able to follow directions as well as complete object recognition tasks when they were asked to try alongside a trained dog.  Dogs helped enhance cognitive and gross motor skills, such as navigating tunnels and obstacle courses and enhanced abilities to follow instructions more closely.

Now the strange thing about acting, and I truly appreciate good acting, is that it’s all about interiority and being real.  This brings to mind an anecdote in which Dustin Hoffman is acting alongside Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man; readying for a scene in which Hoffman is to burst into an apartment having run a long distance, the young actor manically runs up and down a flight of stairs a number of times before Olivier turns to him and asks, “Did you ever consider acting?”

Whether we are conscious of it or not, we are fascinated by authenticity.  Non-actor young children and animals are always radically authentic, and hence they are riveting on screen next to a trained actor; the actor knows what they are going to say, do, think and feel while the animal and the child are unpremeditated and in the moment.  We don’t know what the kid or the animal will do, so we watch to find out.  The rare thespians who do act on the edge, unpredictable and raw, are amazing to watch (if you’re patient, rent a Cassavetes film and you’ll see what I mean).

In counterpoint to acting, where narcissists work like mad to disguise their narcissism and only occasionally succeed, and where children and animals are to actors like garlic to a vampire, as parents we want to place ourselves in the field of presence that pulses between animals and children.  When my youngest son, now a newly minted teen, is upset or distressed, Agnes (our 80+ pound boxer-bulldog) licks his elbows and surrounds him as if he were a still-nursing puppy.  Compared to my wife’s or my ability to help lift him from a despairing mood Agnes is masterful—she doesn’t think, she intuits and responds at a cellular level.  He cheers, not from ideas, but from bathing in an aura of non-intellectual animal love. 

If we parents want to be as motivating and calming as our animals, we need to learn to zap the monkey mind and somehow smell our kids fears and sorrows, we need to stay on message which is not, “you need to change your attitude,” or “you need to do this or that differently,”  (these are things parents must sometimes try to sell to kids who want it like we want the magazine seller to knock on our door while we’re cooking dinner), staying on message is:  we’re a pack, we’re in this together, we’re connected…  Dog’s don’t say, “I love you,” they exude it; they don’t imply that one day you will have to be independent and not lean on me, they suggest by their every action that being connected is what life is all about.  We humans coin words like “pack” and “family” and “relationship,” yet we struggle so hard to live them while dogs, and other animals, plants and rocks quietly reminds us that we already are a global pack, family and in a much larger relationship than we generally realize.

When a teacher or parent asks a special needs kid to do a task, the entire context is (perhaps understandably) laced with the subtextual message of “you’re not okay, but we love you and will make you more like the others… more okay.”  The dog turns to the kid and “says,” “I’m cool with myself and I like to crawl through tunnels and navigate obstacle courses—and if it helps the poor humans feel successful and powerful when we do what they say, that’s how we help them feel connected… but we know that we already are connected” (or something like that… I’m not entirely sure but when I listen closely enough to my dog, when I look deeply enough into her eyes, I see her compassion for my relatively ridiculous way of existing as compared to hers). 

So, let’s dedicate today to being real—to not knowing everything we are going to say, do think and feel, but to discovering it along the way.  Try to see your child, or children, as well as the animals in your life, as teachers today—teachers of whatever we’re supposed to learn in this pulsing moment of a day or night—learning at their feet, paws and claws… and in the service of all our collective children.

Namaste, Bruce


One Response to “Always work with kids and animals”

  1. sandysays1 Says:

    Very good advice. My human spends time with me and I love it! He even spends lots of time talking to his kids and they’re in their 40’s. And he always has time for the Grands. Just to be fair I try to reciprocate.

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