Caring for a pet really is a childhood rite of passage. The excitement of nurturing another being — which quickly becomes a best friend — is incomparable to anything else. The experience creates lifelong memories, and we always remember our first pet.
But while it's obvious that having a pet is entertaining and gives kids the warm fuzzies, did you know it can also positively affect your child in a much more profound way? Experts say a child's physical, social, emotional and cognitive development can all be encouraged by interaction with the family pet.
"Pets provide an impetus for running and practicing motor skills," Sheryl Dickstein, Ph.D., Director of Humane Education for the ASPCA told SheKnows. Walking a dog or running in the yard and throwing a ball are great ways to exercise the dog as well as for children to get away from sedentary indoor activities and move around. Small motor skills can be encouraged by allowing children to scoop food and pour water into dishes, and by helping to groom them. Depending on the child's age, parental supervision is recommended for both the child's and the pet's safety.
For children especially, pets can be wonderful social facilitators. Children are more prone to approach and interact with another child who is playing with a pet. In this way, a pet can be the bridge between a less socially outgoing child and other potential playmates.
A pet itself can be a social object for children because of the nature of their relationship.
"Because animals accept us for who we are, pets give some practice in a social relationship," says Dickstein.
Carlie Van Willigen's five-year-old son Murphy is developmentally disabled, and until the family got a dog two years ago, his mother reports that he never really noticed his surroundings. That changed when the dog came into the house.
"For a while, he didn't seem to even notice the dog, until one day he was running through the kitchen and skidded to a stop in front of the dog and started petting her," Van Willigen said. "Eventually, he began throwing his ball and the dog would fetch it and he thought that was the greatest thing."
Van Willigen sees their dog as one of the catalysts that helped Murphy learn that there is a world outside of himself and his own needs.
Pets can facilitate various aspects of emotional development such as self-esteem and a sense of responsibility. Says Dickstein, "As kids age and take on more of the care for the pet, it helps to build self-confidence." She points out however, that it is a misunderstood fact that pets teach children responsibility. "Parents teach responsibility," explains Dickstein, "Pets just make a good vehicle for learning."
The responsibility a child has for her pet needs be age appropriate. At the age of three, a child can help to fill food bowls. By five, he can begin to take on some basic grooming tasks as well as to help clean the pet's living area. As children reach the mid-elementary school aged years, they can begin walking a dog independently, and as the teen years approach, the child will most likely be able to take on the bulk of the responsibility for a house pet. Keeping pet-oriented tasks age-appropriate is not only necessary for the safety of the pet, but for the child as well — both physically and emotionally.
As children grow, they may develop an interest in a specific type or breed of animal. Encouraging children to read about their favorite pet or to take part in obedience classes with a parent and the pet can all encourage a child's cognitive development as it sparks the desire for learning. Bringing the child along to a veterinarian appointment will give him a chance to ask questions about proper care and his pet's health.
With proper supervision, allowing children to research information about their pet on the Internet is another way they can learn about the pet's special needs and unique characteristics as well as to correspond with other owners of the same type of pet. If your child's desired pet is a horse but you live in a second story apartment, encourage your child to research horses anyway. Even if they can't have the pet of their choice, the learning will be valuable to them anyway.
Because of the special bond that often develops between pet and child, pets can sometimes fill the role of comforter. Since the relationship is non-judgmental from the pet's perspective, a hurting child might be more willing to initially trust a pet than a person.
Karen Hawkins runs a healing farm in Maine where she welcomes both children and animals who are in need of healing. Having worked extensively with foster children, Hawkins has seen the wonders that pets can work in the lives of these emotionally scarred children.
"Some of my foster children had little or no nurturing when they were young. Having them help me nurture orphaned wildlife gave them some personal experiences of how nurturing should have been for them. I saw angry, sullen and sometimes downright vicious children — usually teens but sometimes younger — slowly become softer and milder in their behaviors. They began to trust more. They learned to confide their secrets to the animals and eventually that made it easier for them to begin to trust me enough to confide in me."
Bringing a pet into the family is not a decision that should be made lightly. It first must be a commitment by the parents, not the child, as they will ultimately be responsible for the pet's welfare. Once that commitment has been made, however, and an appropriate pet has been found for the family, the joys and benefits of the pet relationship will last for many years to come.
Originally published September 2007. Updated November 2016.
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