Enjoying the Little Things at SeaWorld

Jungle Jack HannahToday my son and I are going to SeaWorld. Sure, we’ll stop by the Nautilus Theater to hear “Jungle” Jack Hannah for the 1:15 show (read more about it here), but our main goal is to stroll around together, just taking in the sights and enjoying the “little things” we love about SeaWorld.

I remember when my son (now 6) was just learning to walk. When he waddled up to the step along the edge of the Stingray Lagoon, our hearts melted. Wow, our big boy could get up there himself! And boy did he laugh when they splashed his little face.

SeaWorld Mommy with Daniel at Stingray LagoonWe spent a lot of time around that lagoon. When kids are little, there is a lot of emphasis placed on “tactile” learning. He sure got a lot of that! From the silky smoothness of the ray, to the cool water splashing on us. Occasionally we found stingray dental plates and we’d hold them in our hands and Daniel’s eyes would get SO big at this item so tiny.

Today, when the park is bustling with extra visitors for their very special guest, we’ll say HI, but to me, the most special guest is my boy. He’ll hold my hand as we enjoy getting splashed, and as we take in all we can while he’s still a “little thing,” though he won’t be for much longer….

Training and Parenting Have Quite A Lot in Common!

I’ve watched the various whale and dolphin shows at SeaWorld more times than I can count. One of the things I find most intriguing is the outpouring of love they show the animals and the seemingly endless supply of patience they exhibit… even when the animals have no intention of performing on cue. As an audience member, I can tell the hope is that Shamu will swim “that” way. But once in a while he just doesn’t feel like it. I watch the ballet of trainers moving around the stage… encouraging… hoping…. But no. Not now. And you know what? They just go to the next thing. It’s what I aspire to as a parent.

Parenting takes a lot of hard work. (Insert pause where you say, “Well, no duh!”) Sometimes it seems to come effortlessly, while at others you may feel your child has literally been replaced by an other-worldly being who has, apparently, never, no never, been told certain rules, understood explained consequences, and hasn’t ever been allowed to get his/her way. What seems, to you the parent, like a simple request that will ensure a quicker chore completion so you can all get on to the fun is, to your darling, sweet-faced child, tantamount to a request to scrub the floor with a toothbrush. Wouldn’t it be great if there were ways to reinforce those positive behaviors we want from our children while having the ability to overlook ones that aren’t so great?

Enter Operant Conditioning.

The trainers at SeaWorld use operant conditioning to encourage the animals to perform certain behaviors. Basically they positively reinforce particular activities so much that the animals do them more often because good stuff happens when they do. (When you go to work and receive a paycheck, you are conditioned. You do the work, you get the reward.) Trainers also seem to ignore behaviors that are unwanted. No one gets mad. No one goes to time out. Hummmmm.

I enrolled in a free two-week training event at a website called “Positive Parenting Solutions.” Apparently the Alderian psychology they espouse is quite similar to operant  conditioning. It seems people (and animals) coexist better, and with fewer bad behaviors when love is freely given, faults are overlooked, and relationship-building actions are rewarded. Wow. What a concept. (Imagine the look of irony on my face, OK?)

I don’t purport to be an expert trainer, and heaven knows I’m a parent in training. (Um, universe, if you could throw me a “good girl” fish right now that would be swell.) I can say, though, that I have literal goosebumps watching the whales and dolphins majestically  leap through the air or twirl through the water. And yes, I have had tears in my eyes seeing the overwhelmingly apparent mutual affection the trainers have with those in their care.

My child does not (poor thing) have a team of people who spent years in training to learn how to care for him. It’s just me and his dad. And we’re learning as we go.  We don’t always respond with patience. And we have, from time to time, focused on the negative. Oh, and all right, I admit it!, we’ve been inconsistent when consistency is what he needs most. Sigh.

It is my hope more than anything that my child grow up to feel secure and loved… so much so that his behaviors exude both confidence and compassion although I won’t expect him to swirl through the water like a graceful dolphin and pose on the mark. OK, I might want him to smile for the camera if Grandma is taking a picture.

What! No judging! I’m still her child and certain behaviors are reinforced….

The Flying Fiddler in Shamu’s Happy Harbor at Sea World

I still get giggles when I think about my toddler riding the “Flying Fiddler” ride the first few times. He called it the “Crab Ride.” We called it hysterical. While not too brave on some of the faster rides, little Daniel laughed and grinned as the crab went up, up, up in the air and… whoosh, let him drop. It only goes up to maybe 20 feet, but to a three-footer (children under 42″ may ride with an accompanying adult) it’s HUGE!

Daniel’s riding “evolution” took many twists and turns. First he was enthralled with it, if not a tiny bit frightened. Scary can be fun, seemed to be his first thoughts of the ride. Then we went through the “oh, no, I didn’t ride on THAT” phase where he could remember himself being on it (and saw the YouTube videos), but couldn’t quite gather the strength to ride. Now we’re again on the “Let’s GO!” phase.

I’ve had a lot of reason to research a child’s life phases the past few weeks. He’s right on par. One day up, one day down. Just like the ride. Children, especially toddlers, are volatile, adorable, exciting, exasperating, all within the span of a few moments. They are still learning about the world around them, and it is up to the adults in his/her world to be the safety harness… especially mom and dad.

I have to remind myself when I am on one of my “don’t want to ride it” phases, that my child is a work in progress. When he’s crabby, I must love him. For one day he’ll be flying solo… without me.