What Kids Learn from Having Pets
Children gain valuable lessons from relationships with pets, even though the lessons might not be the ones parents had in mind
Parents often think adopting a pet will ensure that a child learns responsibility. But despite the best of intentions, parents usually end up being the ones to feed and walk the dog or cat. This can inadvertently leave a pet without the love and care it needs. For some families, the end result could even be giving up the pet. If you’re a parent considering the relationship between pets and kids, take a more reasonable approach: Instead of expecting a child to be responsible for daily pet care, give children opportunities to love and play with pets. Children will grow into caring for pets and, along the way, learn self-esteem, healthy living habits, and more.
WHAT KIDS LEARN FROM PETS
With pets in the home, there are many opportunities for children to learn valuable life lessons:
A sense of self: A dog or cat is a companion, sometimes 24 hours a day. A dog will likely reflect constant love back to the child, saying in effect, “You are a wonderful person, and I love you.” An affectionate cat that’s not fearful will send children a similar message. Such a gift can be restorative for a person of any age. For kids, a pet plays a role in helping them form a healthy sense of self and build self-esteem.
Behavioral awareness: On the other hand, when a child treats a pet roughly, the pet provides immediate feedback. This teaches children to notice and pay attention to how their own behavior affects others. Children then can fine-tune behaviors and see when the pet’s responses improve as a result of more gentle and aware treatment.
How to cope with loss: Although many parents probably don’t want to think about this, the lifespan of a dog or cat is roughly one-fifth that of people. Larger dogs can have even shorter lifespans. Commonly, a child’s first experience with the death of a loved one is the loss of a beloved pet. If managed in a respectful way that pays tribute to the pet, this experience can be invaluable to children as they prepare for life.
Healthy living habits: Properly caring for pets means feeding them an appropriate diet and engaging them in regular exercise. By being involved with these aspects of care, children can learn healthy living habits for both their pet and themselves.
Leadership skills: When children learn to give simple commands to a dog, reward correct behavior, and refuse attention for incorrect responses, they’re practicing leadership. This helps them gain a sense of authority, as well as gain confidence in their abilities.
THROUGH THE AGES
Of course, children differ in their personalities and responses to experiences, as do pets. Parents may be surprised when one child in the family readily interacts with a pet while another child acts relatively indifferent to the cat or dog. Observing your child’s interests and predispositions provides a solid starting point for fostering a child-pet relationship.
Any child will benefit from familiarity with pets. It lets children know something about canine and feline behavior, helps them feel comfortable around other pets, and teaches them to interact safely with animals. Children can expand their activities with their pet cat or dog as appropriate for their age and circumstance. Remember the golden rule, though: Children under school age should never be left unattended with a dog or cat. Following are some other age-related considerations to keep in mind.
THE YOUNG CHILD
Toddlers are naturally attracted to animals. They will follow a pet, perhaps roughly interacting with it. When a young child is unpredictable and moves suddenly, pets can be slightly irritable or fearful of the child. Many cats that are friendly with adults are frightened or wary of young children; this even occurs with some dogs. Thus, a first goal should be to achieve two-way habituation between the pet and the child.
You as a parent can work on getting a pet accustomed to a child while also coaching the child on how to gently and softly approach the cat or dog. This requires that your family pet be a cat or dog that’s predisposed to being friendly and tolerant of a young child’s sometimes erratic behavior.
Before adopting a pet, ask a veterinarian about which types, ages, and breeds of pet would best suit your family. A veterinarian will also be able to let you know what to expect in order to care for a pet appropriately. The whole family should spend some quality time with any animal you’re considering, visiting a potential pet several times and including every family member in the process. Most pet-adoption shelters also can offer counseling and give more detailed information about individual pets’ personalities, as well as their care and upkeep requirements.
By being introduced to a pet before adoption, parents and children will have an opportunity to learn about how to calmly and safely approach new animals. Once the pet is home, teach young children how to show affection by petting the dog or cat in a way that pleases the animal. Specifically, children need to learn the part of the body to touch and the type of touch to use and, especially, not to overdo petting. This requires the child to notice the pet’s response to petting.
If your family has a dog, encourage your child to assume a leadership role by teaching the dog some simple commands, such as “sit” or “lay down.” Your child can provide the dog with a treat when it obeys. Another lesson in leadership is learning not to intentionally feed the dog from the table, thereby improving the dog’s behavior during mealtime.
Just before your family will be leaving the dog alone, allow your child to be the one who delivers the dog a special treat. Perhaps you could give a treat that takes a while to eat, such as a dental chew treat or food-filled chew toy. This is a way that parents can teach their children about how dogs can experience separation anxiety, that this is normal, and, that in growing up, one moves beyond separation anxiety.
Adults should oversee the pet’s care because even children who seem mature beyond their years are still children who need guidance.
As a child’s age and maturity dictate, more responsibility can be assigned. Depending on the pet, with adult supervision and guidance, older children may be able to assist with more complicated tasks such as grooming or walking.
Experts consider the age range of roughly 7 to 12 years old the sweet spot for pets and children. Children of these ages are most likely to seek out pets and enrich their lives with cats and dogs.
Children are keenly aware of whose pet an animal is—whether it is a neighbor’s or their own. Eight-year-olds understand and verbalize what a special gift their pet’s love is. In contrast, they describe other pets in the neighborhood as “fun to play with” and “special friends.” They especially value having their own pets and taking on more pet care responsibilities. Parents describe many advantages for children, including experiencing the responsibility of caring for a pet and sharing love, respect, and affection with it. As children mature and show more ability to handle responsibility, you can add duties such as feeding, brushing, and bathing the pet. Of course, adults should oversee the pet’s care because even children who seem mature are still children who need guidance.
The relationship between pet and child can be especially influential for only children or those who are the youngest of several siblings. These kids gain an experience they wouldn’t otherwise get: Caring for a smaller individual as they seek out opportunities for nurturing. They also often spend more time with pets, sleeping with and talking to them more than children with siblings.
No matter their age or birth order, children stand to gain much from their relationship with a pet. While it’s unrealistic to turn over daily responsibilities to a young child, pets do offer opportunities for teaching children useful lessons—and having fun. And, with the right expectations, your family will be richer for including both two- and four-legged members.