Pets Are Often More Than a ‘Best Friend’
By Chandra Orr
Copley News Service
Though pets play an important and often familial role in the lives of adults and children alike, the role a pet can have in a child’s development is especially important. Children learn many of life’s lessons from caring for animals, learning how to both take care of a pet and care for it emotionally. Dr. Gail Melson of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at the Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine points out that children learn empathy and nurturing behaviors as a result of having a pet. The latter lesson is particularly important for male children, who typically do not participate in nurturing games such as playing dolls or house and often view nurturing activities as signs of weakness. When it comes to male children and pets, however, that nurturing bias disappears.
Dr. Alan Beck, who directs the Human-Animal Bond center at Purdue, notes that pets provide other lessons for children as well, whether it’s how to cultivate a friendship or deal with the inevitability of death.
“For children, animals teach responsibility and compassion,” Dr. Beck said in a 2005 online forum for WebMD. “They can be a best friend, a source of learning about life, and are often the first exposure to death, which is still important for children to understand.”
Though pets can play such an integral role in a child’s development, it’s important parents understand which pets might be the most appropriate for their children. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) notes that choosing an appropriate pet is essential to how beneficial your pet can be for your child’s development. For instance, the ASPCA suggests parents of toddlers or infants avoid choosing a pet that is also in its infancy or toddler stage. Having a pet and child at such a similar learning and developmental stage can be detrimental to both child and pet, as each is learning its respective boundaries and how to interact with others. Child and pet, then, are both more likely to overstep their boundaries, perhaps making the relationship between child and pet strained and quite possibly dangerous.
The ASPCA also suggests parents keep a watchful eye on the interaction between child and pet, particularly if your child is younger. For young children, responsibility can be instilled with the simplest of tasks, be it filling a water bowl each day or simply coming along for the daily walk. As time goes by and children get older, increasing their responsibilities with respect to the family pet will only foster their sense of responsibility.
Children can also learn a sense of social responsibility from having a pet. As Dr. Beck points out, animals encourage social contact between people.
“We are a social species, and we find great comfort in each other’s company,” Dr. Beck says. “Our studies and others have shown that people with animals are actually viewed by others as being nicer, better people.”
While that’s a definite benefit, animals could also increase the likelihood of a child succeeding in social opportunities. According to the ASPCA, parents of young children should encourage appropriate behavior between child and pet, such as not playing too roughly and not disturbing the animal while it’s sleeping or eating (both of which could be dangerous to a child, as animals, dogs, in particular, may respond to such disturbances with aggressive behavior). By encouraging your child to behave appropriately with your pet, you’ll help your child get a better understanding of how best to behave around other children and a stronger sense of what is appropriate and what is not.
Dr. Beck also notes that pets can often play a calming, healing, and even nurturing role for their owners. For instance, simply petting a dog or cleaning a fish tank has been shown to lower blood pressure. While children are not necessarily prone to high blood pressure, everyone, including toddlers and younger children, has bad days, making the calming effects of a pet all the more beneficial. An animal’s ability to recognize when a person is having a bad day is also an interesting thing to note.
“Many social species, including humans, dolphins, and dogs, notice when a member of the group needs more attention,” Dr. Beck says. “And dogs are particularly sensitive to human behaviors and often even anticipate it. They are incredibly observant of the most minor, nonverbal behaviors. It is common that a dog senses a ‘pack’ member who is behaving differently and orients to that person and tries to bring comfort.”
While many people love a pet simply because of the way they look, it’s good to know as well that your pet, be it a dog, cat or even some fish, is paying dividends you might not even be aware of.