As someone who grew up with pets (a dozen or so cats, some turtles, a mouse, and a lot of fish) I would say that pets and kids definitely mix. My childhood wouldn’t have been the same without some good animal companions around the home. From the life experience of watching some of our mama cats give birth to the despair and then joy of losing and then finding our turtles again, life just wouldn’t have had as much good life stuff in it. Having pets brought a special level of experience that we couldn’t have had otherwise. I know how lucky I was to grow up with pets, so I’d like to talk about some of the reasons why a pet might be a good idea for a family with young or growing children.
We all have our own personal styles of communication. Some can be extremely complex in their communication while others are more straightforward. Understanding the social cues and behaviors of others is a key social skill that we all need to develop. Having a pet, especially a more communicative one like a dog or a cat, is a wonderful stepping stone in a child’s understanding of socialization. Children can quickly recognize and interpret non-verbal communication in animals. A child who sees a dog jumping and running and wagging its tail may say, “That is a happy dog!” A child observing a fish hiding in a tank will say, “That fish is hiding because it is scared.” Children can prove themselves surprisingly adept at interpreting animal emotions. This becomes a wonderful teaching tool for helping kids to recognize and respond to these emotions and behaviors in others.
Another way pets assist in socialization is that they can become a child’s confidant, someone to whom a child can talk. Children commonly need someone or something to project their emotions and feelings on, hence the common “imaginary friend” that some children invent. Pets can help a child externalize their own emotions and feelings, thus helping them identify and understand the things they are experiencing.
One common fear that parents have about letting their children play around pets is that they will suffer allergic reactions or be exposed to pet germs and bacteria. In some cases a child may be susceptible to the dander and hair associated with many pets, and some pets are not as clean as others. Your best judgment is needed to determine how you will protect your child, and of course it is always important to be aware of what pets your child is associating with outside of the home since you don’t have control over that pet’s care and upkeep. However, it’s good to know that children that grow up with pets tend to develop strong immune systems and are not as sensitive to common allergens, most likely because they build up immunity to those irritants early in life.
The mental and emotional well-being of a child can also be linked to the presence of a pet in the home. There is a good reason why comfort animals are becoming popular, because children respond differently to an animal than they would to an adult or even to another child. You could say that it is the unconditional love or the non-judgmental nature of animals that gives them a comforting quality for children.
Learning and Responsibility
While it’s true that learning to care for an animal can help a child learn responsibility, simply introducing a pet into the family will not motivate your child to be more responsible. It is the parent who ultimately teaches the child responsibility, but having a pet presents more opportunities for a child to act in a role of responsibility.
When a child forms a bond with a pet, there’s more that goes into it than friendship or companionship. While it’s a give and take situation, the pet is ultimately dependent on its caretaker. This particular relationship does not happen in friendships or even sibling relations. Outside of the pet relationship, a child most likely will not be in a situation where another being or creature is dependent on them. The quality of nurturing that this relationship requires can give a child the skills, understanding, and frame of mind needed to prepare for parenthood in the future. A child that has experienced nurturing knows only half of the equation until he can learn to also give nurturing. A child who has not received nurturing can still learn to give it by learning to care for a pet.
These are just a few of the great things about having a pet. I haven’t even touched on the great memories, the laughter, and peaceful, rewarding moments that come from having pets. Yes, having a pet is a big responsibility. Whether it’s a goldfish or a dog, your pet becomes a part of your family. Pet ownership is not something to be lightly entered into, but it should also be something that is not lightly pushed aside either. Think about if a pet is right for you and your family.
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