“Whale Done Parenting”: What parents can learn from Sea World trainers

You might not think training a 10,000-pound killer whale to jump out of the water and potty-training your toddler have much in common.

Chuck Tompkins, a longtime killer whale trainer at SeaWorld and father of two, would beg to differ.

Along with Ken Blanchard, Thad Lacinak and Jim Ballard, Tompkins has written a new parenting book, “Whale Done Parenting” (Berrett-Koehler Publishing), which applies techniques he used for years with whales to, for example, navigating the candy aisle without a complete meltdown.

“People train kids to have temper tantrums,” says Tompkins, who now serves as the curator of zoological operations for SeaWorld Parks& Entertainment, SeaWorld’s parent company. “They don’t naturally occur.”

In a desperate attempt to end the screaming and crying, parents are often tempted to give in to a child’s demands — and that’s all it takes, Tompkins says. “You’ve stopped the behavior in the short term, but you’ve also reinforced it,” he says. “It only has to happen once, and that behavior is going to keep happening.”

Instead, Tompkins offered tips for parents when he stopped by the Chicago Parent offices to discuss his new book — and brought a friend: Buffy, an Asian small-clawed river otter, to demonstrate the book’s principles.

  • 1. Set your child up for success
    Make sure your child knows what’s expected of him or her. If you’re toting your little ones on a shopping trip, tell them that you expect them to use indoor voices and not reach for things, and that if they behave well, there’s something in it for them. “With something just that simple, you’ve just set your child up to succeed, and they’ve learned that good behavior is rewarded,” Tompkins says.
  • 2. Ignore bad behavior.
    When bad behavior surfaces, whether it’s a temper tantrum, the instinct is to yell, punish, maybe even spank. But Tompkins says that even negative attention can reinforce bad behavior. “When that’s the best way [kids] know to get attention, you’re going to see more of that behavior,'” Tompkins says. “We tend to react quickly in those situations, and no learning is going to happen when everyone is emotional.”
  • 3. Reinforce good behavior
    Positive reinforcement is important, too. When your kids are behaving well, don’t ignore it. Instead, reward them — probably not with raw fish, but a kind word or a small treat will do the trick.

See the January issue of Chicago Parent for the full story.

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