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Annie Fox, M.Ed., is an internationally respected parenting expert, award-winning author, and a trusted online adviser for tweens and teens.

Good dog and the meta-message

November 29, 2009

That's a good dog

That's a good dog

A couple of weeks ago I interviewed Rachel Simmons The Wise for my podcast series Family Confidential. We talked about her new book: The Curse of The Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls With Courage and Confidence. We also discussed how often moms engage in meta-conversations with their daughters (i.e., Mom says one thing and a fingertip below the surface churns the unspoken message). With all that doublespeak how can a girl learn to be  authentic and express the truth of her heart?  Not very easily. And it isn’t  just moms and daughters. As Rachel put it, no matter who you’re talking to or what relationship you’ve got, “… there’s always a meta-conversation going on.”

For example:

Parent: Oh, you’re still on the phone.

Meta-message: I just know you won’t get your homework done tonight and then what? You think I enjoy nagging you? Well, I don’t! But if I don’t stay on your case how are you ever going to get into a decent college??

Mini meta-message: You’re lazy and I’m disappointed in you.

Parent: Don’t you think your other jeans would look better with that top?

Meta-message: Those jeans are too tight and too low cut. They make you look fat and slutty. What will Grandma say when she sees you wearing that? She’s going to think I’m a bad mother to let you dress that way!

Mini meta-message: You’re fat and you embarrass me.

Parent:  How’s Janie these days?

Meta-message: Are you two still friends? Did you hurt her feelings or do something to make her mad? Are you now hanging out with people I should be worried about? (Sigh) You and I used to be so close. Now you don’t tell me anything. What else are you hiding from me? I’m not sure I even want to know!

Mini meta-message: You’re not a good friend and I don’t trust you.

Visiting with family and friends this holiday weekend I’ve thought about meta-messages. And whether they’re conscious or not, communication patterns between people often determine who we like to hang out with and who doesn’t make our “favorites” list.

Early this morning me and my dog Josie snuck out of the house before anyone else was awake. We headed for the nearby hills and because Josie’s only 8 months old and full of beans I let her off-leash. She instantly vanished through the trees tracking deer and squirrels and nosing the underbrush for ticks thumbing a ride to our house. While she was gone I walked on, enjoying the quiet light and the colors. Every so often I’d whistle for Josie and she’d reappear. Sometimes from behind me on the trail. Sometimes from way ahead. We’d smile at each other and wag our tails. “Yes! Good dog!” Then I’d give her a treat. After each reunion she’d take off  again and I continued hiking.

So it went for about an hour. When I finally put her back on leash I thought about the meta-conversation Josie and I had and why she happily kept returning to me. The way I figure, it comes down to this… each of us, dog or human, prefers to hang with people who tell us we are good dogs.

It also help if they give us treats.



  1. Great concept! This is a real gem of an idea. This is my take on your meta-message with Josie: “I trust you to come back to me. I’m going to keep walking and I’ll let you know where I am. You’re free to explore on your own because you can count on me to be here. You’re welcome to join me on this walk or to have your own adventures. I know you enjoy being independent and having time on your own. When I see you, I feel happy.” Sounds like good parenting to me. And I bet you even helped her remove her ticks afterwards.

    Comment by Fayette — November 30, 2009 @ 12:53 pm

  2. Loved this post! I have a dog and I have kids. Hanging out with all of them is honestly a pleasure. I can only imagine part of it is because I allow them all time “off leash” and vice versa.

    Comment by dr aletta — December 28, 2009 @ 3:38 pm

  3. Very interesting concept…..thanks!

    Comment by Andrea Coventry — January 9, 2010 @ 11:45 am

  4. I think we need to be careful about assuming meta-messages are always there. It took me years to un-learn the notion that X really means Y. My poor husband used to dispair because he’d say something innocent – and mean it innocently — and I’d interpret it into something quite different. So some of it might be the receiver’s own insecurity and filter. And at some point, hopefully, the receiver will learn to identify that sometimes it’s his or her own baggage. Really, it’s amazingly freeing to not take everything personally or as a veiled insult. Let it roll off your back.

    Comment by Lucy (mom) — July 8, 2011 @ 7:16 pm

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