Poet William Blake once wrote, "Everyone that lives, lives not alone nor for itself." This is especially true when it comes to our pets. And, according to researchers and counselors, it may be one of the most important lessons pets teach children.
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 how the world and living things are interconnected," explains Rebecca Reynolds Weil, an occupational therapist and executive director of the Animals As Intermediaries program. AAI, based in Mass., is a nature-based educational and therapeutic program designed to help children and senior citizens connect with a world they may have trouble relating to. Animals are a vital part of the program, Weil says, because they stimulate curiosity and build empathy.
The program (www.aai-nature.org) brings the natural world to the program's participants, many of whom reside in institutional settings. But pets in the home can accomplish the same goals. On the emotional level, pets can teach children many things: 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 for body posture.
Empathy: Children often become curious about the emotions their pets feel. This curiosity will extend itself to others. "Animals offer an avenue for children to explore their curiosity," Weil explains. "For a child, curiosity can lead to hope and to greater engagement with the world around them."
Nurturing skills: If properly supervised by adults, a child learns how to take care of another living being, and take pleasure in keeping the pet healthy and happy.
Confidence: Children go through life under constant evaluation. They are rated by their behavior, grades and athletic performance. This is especially true of middle school children. Pets have no such expectations; they're delighted that the child is with them. "Pets give children the sense of unconditional acceptance," Weil says. "No judging or rating is involved."
Resilience to change: Children who undergo traumatic experiences often cope better when they have a pet to confide in. "Loneliness is very dangerous to children," Weil says. "Having an animal companion can make them feel a part of something."
A study published in 2000 explored the relationship between pets and children. Specifically, the study, conducted by a child psychologist in New Mexico, looked at the effect dog ownership had on 10- to 12-year-old children. The researcher, Robert E. Bierer, Ph.D., was surprised at the difference in empathy and self-esteem between preadolescents who owned a dog and those who did not.
Bierer's conclusions support the growing body of evidence that shows dog ownership has "statistically significant" impact on self-esteem and sensitivity toward others. He noted that teachers, parents and other children have expectations for a child to fulfill. A pet has no such measures of success or failure; acceptance is total, which provides a sense of self worth.
Pets also teach children about the importance of taking care of themselves. For instance, Weil says she teaches children why it is important to take care of a pet, brush his teeth and keep him clean. When they understand the importance, Weil turns the focus on the children themselves. If brushing a dog's teeth is important for his health, then naturally it is important for the child's well being.
This doesn't necessarily mean that all children are ready for pet ownership. Parents should first make sure their child desires a pet before rushing out to get one. Together, they should decide what type of pet is best. Moreover, don't assume your child will take care of the dog. The ultimate responsibility usually falls on the parent, not the kid, to make sure the pet is healthy.
For more information on pets and children, see How to Keep Dogs and Kids Together and Pros and Cons of Pet Types for Kids.