Kids love animals. Even very young babies will smile and kick when they see a puppy, and one visit to the zoo will prompt toddlers to ask many excited questions: ‘Why does the giraffe have such a long neck? What does the baby kangaroo do inside the pouch—does it have a TV?’
But animals don’t just entertain kids. They can also teach kids important skills and values. Look at this list of ‘animal wisdom’ when you’re thinking about whether or not to get a pet. You may be surprised at how your cute dog or playful kitten can teach your child.
1. Pets develop a sense of compassion.
Let’s face it: toddlers and pre-schoolers are just a little bit self-centered. They’re used to being the center of attention, or getting special treatment because they’re the ‘baby’ of the house. However, a pet gives your child a chance to take on the role of being the protective, nurturing ‘master.’ You can explain, for example, that the puppy is a bit scared about being in a new place. ‘Let’s use gentle hands and voice so we don’t frighten it. Can you think of other things that will make it happy?’
Kids are also learning empathy, and how their actions affect other people. For example, when your son pulls the puppy’s tail, explain that it hurts. ‘How would you feel if somebody pulled you out of bed when you were sleeping?’ He’ll start to put himself in the animal’s place—which is a big step in his emotional and social development.
2. Pets develop a sense of responsibility.
Your child knows how well you take care of him, and pets give him a chance to do that, too. Even pre-schoolers can handle simple tasks like changing the pet’s water, filling the food dish, or playing ‘fetch’ so the dog can get enough exercise. Older kids can help clean a fish’ aquarium, give walks, or change the kitty liter.
The great thing about these ‘chores’ (as opposed to taking out the garbage or washing dishes) is that you don’t have to ‘bribe’ your child with extra allowance money. He gets his reward from the love and loyalty of his pet, and the satisfaction of knowing that he’s helping take care of another life. This is incredibly empowering and can build his self-esteem.
3. Pets encourage curiosity and observation.
Pets are like living science experiments—there’s so much to learn just by watching them! Encourage your child to research on his pet, its original habitat, or even trivia about its breed or anatomy. For example, your pre-schooler will be fascinated to find out that his pet Labrador Retriever has an extraordinary sense of smell, and was once bred to be a hunting dog. You can ‘test’ these feats by teaching the dog tricks or just watching it sniff its surrounding during a walk around the neighborhood.
5. Pets teach a love for the environment.
A child who owns a pet learns to love animals and to protect them. Talk about how many other animals have
nothing to eat, or are being driven out of their homes because of deforestation. Or, as you clean the aquarium, talk about the trash in the ocean, and the different kinds of marine life that are affected by a single oil spill.
While your child will hear about these things in school or from the news, owning a pet makes the topic more personal and more real. By doing this, we parents can raise a generation that cares for the environment and can somehow help heal the damage that has already been wreaked on Mother Earth.
6. Pets help draw children out of their shell.
Children who have been traumatized (by abuse, neglect or family tragedy) or are going through an emotionally rough time can find great healing from having a pet.
Animals have a magical way about them. They put even the shyest child at ease, and reward even the smallest acts of kindness—a treat, a pat on the head—with affection and loyalty. They make excellent companions, and their antics are sure to make everyone around them smile. This can be very comforting for a sad or lonely child.
Pets can also encourage children who have gone through physical injury or trauma to become more active, or get children who have become socially withdrawn to let go and play.
7. Pets teach unconditional love.
And best of all, pets are non-judgmental. They love their little masters with blind devotion, and this is perhaps one of the most powerful gifts of all. Every child deserves to feel that he is unique, special and appreciated. Pets do that instinctively—and pays back, with one happy bark or wag of the tail—all the attention and nurturing that is given to them.