Pets and children make a great match. They don’t expect too much of each other and just enjoy one another’s company. Apart from this unconditional acceptance, recent research shows pets have a positive influence on a child’s development.
Self-esteem is the main issue of the social-emotional part of a child’s development. Accomplishing a task, such as taking care of a pet, clearly is a boost for the child’s self-esteem. Interacting with a companion animal also teaches the child about empathy, understanding the feelings and needs of others.
As for cognitive development, there is some preliminary evidence that pet ownership might facilitate language acquisition and enhance verbal skills. Not only is a pet an attractive verbal stimulus, but it is also a patient listener. Some schools have installed reading programs with the help of therapy dogs. The presence of these dogs gives children the encouragement they need to read aloud. Reading to the nonjudgmental dogs who don’t make critical remarks, their confidence and reading skills grow.
A study of Kansas State University among 88 households during five years found that interaction with a companion animal gives the child an understanding of the world from the pet’s viewpoint. This stimulates the child’s cognitive development and may even boost its IQ scores.
The contribution a pet makes to a child’s development differs with the age of the child. In early childhood (infancy through preschool years), the animal companion offers mainly affection and the possibility for physical contact. As small children are still physically clumsy it is of the utmost importance for the child and for the pet that their interaction is supervised by adults at all times.
Middle childhood is where a pet can have the biggest influence. Besides being a playmate, the pet can also facilitate friendships with other children. Through feeding, grooming, bathing, and cleaning up after the animal, a child learns skills related to caring for another living being and experiences the positive effects of this care. Children have to learn to nurture in order to become nurturing adults. The attachments they form in childhood are the basis for their later social relationships.
During the emotional roller coaster of adolescence, the companion animal plays a very important role as confidant. In general, children turn to their pets when they feel sad, angry, or frightened, or to tell a secret. Pets may make children feel more secure and safe. They have few demands, do not hold grudges, and are always happy to see you.
Taking care of the pet can’t be the duty of a child alone though. An adult always has the ultimate responsibility for fulfilling the needs of the animal.
Dealing with death
A very special lesson pets teach is about death. Most companion animals have a shorter life span than we do. For many people, the loss of a pet is the first death experience of their childhood. This makes a profound impact and adults should handle children who lost a beloved animal with special care. Until about 5-7 years, children do not understand death as being definitive. They think the animal will come back or they start having fears that they themselves will also die soon.
Don’t hide the death of a pet from children telling them the pet has walked away. It’s best to be honest and talk about what happened to the animal. Grief rituals like making a memorial for the pet help the child dealing. Don’t replace the animal quickly as this may transmit the idea a pet is disposable. Give the child time to grieve the loss. The relationship between a child and the beloved animal is unique.
Pets come in all shapes and sizes. What makes a good companion animal? One that is known to interact well with children, is responsive to human interaction, and is inclined to cuddle and show warmth and affection. Its size has to be appropriate. For young children for instance it’s better to have an adult dog or cat that tolerates active playing and handling than a fragile puppy or kitten. Contrary to the common believe rabbits aren’t that suitable as they are easily injured and frightened. Every pet needs a safe place to be able to escape to when it wants to be left alone for a while.
It is very important to consider the time and energy you have to invest to attend to the animal’s basic needs, as well as the financial costs. A companion animal also needs attention and affection. Bringing a pet in your house is only the beginning. There needs to be interaction in which adults have to play an active role. The benefits don’t automatically rise from pet ownership. It’s the attachment to the pet that creates the magic.
Girl with dog © Sophia – Fotolia.com