Parents often bring a pet into the family to teach kids a sense of responsibility, or perhaps to provide an only child with a playmate. But children often learn something more fundamental about themselves and the world – how to empathize with others; how to understand subtle feelings and how to look at the world from a vastly different perspective.
The child learns that the world and living things are interconnected. Animals are a vital part because they stimulate curiosity and build empathy. A pet in the home can accomplish many goals. On the emotional level, pets can teach children such things as,
- Communication – Children learn the subtle cues their pets give them to indicate their feelings. They can later apply this lesson to human interaction because they are more attuned to watching body posture.
- Empathy – Children often become curious about the emotions their pets feel compared to their own. This curiosity will extend itself to others. Animals offer an avenue for children to explore their own curiosity. For a child, curiosity can lead to hope and greater engagement with the world around them.
- Nurturing skills – If properly supervised by adults, a child can learn how to take care of another living being and take pleasure in keeping a pet healthy and happy.
- Confidence – Children go through life under constant evaluation. They are rated by their behavior, grades and athletic performance. Pets have no such expectations; they are delighted that the child is with them. Pets give children the sense of unconditional acceptance; no judging or rating is involved.
- Resilience to change – Children who undergo traumatic experiences often copes better when they have a pet to confide in and share. Loneliness can be painful to a child. An animal companion can make them feel a part of an experience.
A recent study explored the relationship between pets and children. Specifically, the study looked at the effect dog guardianship had on ten to twelve year old children. Researchers were surprised at the difference in empathy and self-esteem between pre-adolescents who have a dog and those who did not.
This conclusion supported the evidence that shows dog guardianship has “statistically significant” impact on self-esteem and sensitivity toward others. While teachers, parents and other children have expectations for a child to fulfill; a pet has no such measure of success or failure. Acceptance is total and provides a sense of self-worth.
Pets also teach children the importance of taking care of themselves. Children should be taught it is important to take care of their pets, brush their teeth and keep them clean. When they understand this importance, the focus can then be on the child himself. If brushing a dog’s teeth is important for its health, then it is important for the child’s well-being also.
This doesn’t mean all children are ready for pet guardianship. Parents should first make sure their child desires a pet before getting one. Don’t assume your child will take care of the pet. The ultimate responsibility usually falls on the parent, not the child, to make sure the pet is healthy.
Through our continuing Humane Education programs, the Humane Society of Sedona can give a child of any age, the opportunity to learn compassion and empathy toward animals. They may not understand the word ‘compassion’, but children know what love feels like. All children know love, pain, sadness and joy.
We hope to reinforce these feelings and enlighten the mind of a youngster. By paralleling the needs of an animal in way that a child can understand, we will have made an impression for the life of that child.
Jacquie Randall - Volunteer Coordinator Humane Society of Sedona