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Help, as Defined by Dogs and Children

Ok, I'm a dog person. But it doesn't follow that I can't tell dogs from children.

There is a numerical discrepancy leg-wise. Dogs sleep more. And dogs, when pleased, don't generally smile (some do), and pleased children scarcely ever wag their tails.

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But there is one way in which dogs and children are enchantingly alike. It is in the area of being helpful.

Our dog is very helpful. She washes the kitchen floor with admirable thoroughness. She chases foxes out of the garden. She brings home tree trunks. The only problem is that she doesn't remember why. Our notion of useful firewood is forgotten in chewing. And chewing. Finally nothing is left but fragments.

And there is horticulture. She knows the tools. I only have to grasp one and she is nudging and tripping me, ready to join the dig. It would be most unwise to take her along on an archaeological weekend. Without regard to dating and cataloging, Roman shards and Stone Age flints would fly all over the site.

In our garden, I overturn a clod and she's in there, scratching and snuffling. It's "Clear out of my way, you useless human! Digging is a dog thing. Watch how it's done." And I have to retreat and let the professional work. The fact that she tends to submerge surrounding plants with a volcanic fountain of soil concerns her not. The hole, the hole is all that matters.

This is where I suspect there is a confusion in her mind that is also characteristic of children. It is the question of who is helping whom. Is she helping me, or am I actually helping her?

When I was a small child, my mother used to note down silly things my brother and I said or did, to include them in letters to our older half-brothers away fighting for king and country. One of my sayings she told me later.

My brother Trevor and I had evidently been playing for some time in the garden. My mother came out and asked me what I was doing.

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"I'm busy helping Trevor," I squeaked.

"And what's Trevor doing?"

"He's busy helping me." Apparently, I had no more to squeak on the subject.

The classic example of children "helping" parents is the car wash. Why do kids have this burning yen to wash the family vehicle? The answer comes clear minutes after the hose has been turned on and the suds are lathering up like a bubble bath. What began as car cleaning becomes what is known as water play.

The kids are now washing each other, the cat, the shrubs, the gravel, and any passerby who happens foolishly to not pass by on the other side. The truth is that car cleaning is hard and boring, while playing with a hose is gigantic fun. I have no doubt that those who are into good parenting are indulgent on such occasions, remembering their own childhoods.

One parent I know admits that there is a fine balance to be struck when a child offers to be helpful. At the very least, children should be allowed to feel they are actually being helpful, even when they are decidedly not.

A FRIEND who has lived for years in rural East Anglia told me a story. One of the traditional uses of female labor in the fields was the thinning-out or "singling" of sugar beets. Beet seeds (before the development of monogerm seeds) came up in bunches. The plants had to be thinned, leaving only the largest to grow to maturity.

Because mothers couldn't just leave them at home, they would take their babies with them in the pram. The farther the women moved along the row, the louder would grow the child's complaining: a kind of country rhythm.

Once the children could walk, they would follow their mothers along the row. And one time a mother like this was working away, the child coming after her. Having worked concentratedly for a time, she turned to check her child's whereabouts.

It was then, horrifyingly, that she saw stretching away behind her a line of bare earth. And a small child looking very - helpful.

"You've missed some, Mum," the young one said, "so I've pulled them up for you."

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