As families decrease in size and we become increasingly urbanised the need to keep pets at home becomes more important for children’s healthy development.
Most kids at stage will ask – no, nag – for a pet of some type. Gold fish, guinea pigs, pet mice and rabbits are generally on city-dwelling children’s want lists for pets at some stage. The more conventional cats and dogs compete with more exotic species such as tortoises, snakes and parrots for kid’s attention in the large animal stakes.
The lure of pets for kids was demonstrated some years ago at the height of the electronic pet phase. Kids across the world were glued to their handheld monitors feeding, walking and caring for their electronic pets.
As it turned out electronic pets were no substitute for the real things and the phase thankfully has passed.
Pets contribute in four ways to children’s healthy development:
1. They teach children to take responsibility for something other themselves. Some pets are easier to care for than others but most have to be cared for, protected and fed on a regular basis. It is the regularity of caring for pets that is the greatest lesson for kids. Parents may give children chores and it may not matter much to children if they are not done. But the consequences of not caring for a pet are generally very real for children. Fail to feed a small animal and it may die. Forget to close the cage on the chicken pen and the dog may have an unexpected feast. These are real responsibilities that teach real life lessons to kids.
2. It is inevitable that at some stage pets will die. It is tough but that is life. Animals teach kids about the cycle of life. Dogs moult, lizards shed their skins and the call of the wild is just too great for some species in spring. The nature’s cycles become real when you have pets
3. Pets teach kids to be empathetic. When children care for their pets they become protective and look out for their welfare. They empathise with their pets if they are cold, hungry or it is stormy outside. Kids will often want the dog to sleep inside when it is cold or the cat to come in from the rain. They often blur the line between animal and human but at least they are emphasising with their pets – and putting themselves in their situation. My point – empathy is a brilliant life skill. Empathetic kids never bully and empathetic adults are brilliant to be around. They make great partners, workmates and bosses. These characteristics need to be nurtured in childhood and owning pets can allow for this.
4. Youngest and only child are usually surrounded in their families by people who are bigger and more capable than them. The opportunity to care for a pet puts them in control and allows them to care for something just as their parents have cared for them.
The type of pets that kids have will depend on their age, your circumstances and their wants. From my own experience it is necessary to instil in kids the responsibility that comes with pet ownership. Kids will often see an animal in a pet store or at a friend’s house and immediately want it. It’s a parent’s job to remind children that pets are for LIFE (of the animal) and that the fun of having a pet is balanced by the responsibility of looking after it.
Pet ownership is a two –edged sword. But so is life. That’s why kids should keep pets.
Michael Grose is a popular parenting educator and parent coach. He is the director of Parent Coaching Australia, the author of six books for parents and a popular presenter who speaks to audiences in Australian Singapore and the USA. For free courses and resources to help you raise happy kids and resilient teenagers visit http://www.parentingideas.com.au