Children and Companion Animals
At this time of year, many people consider adding an animal companion to their families, often as a gift for a child, and some wonder whether or not bringing an animal into a home with children is a good idea. While there are caveats to weigh, overall, having an animal in the family can offer many benefits to a child. Animals bring so much to our lives, and the advantages to children especially can be significant, including teaching responsibility and empathy.
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, animals can provide valuable life lessons for children. Caring for an animal teaches children how to be accountable and trustworthy. The animal relies on the child for regular care and feedings as well as to meet the animal’s social needs. This teaches the child that someone is depending on them, so they learn responsibility, which in turn improves the child’s confidence and self-esteem. Additionally, learning how to understand what the animal is communicating teaches the child empathy and compassion, as well as how to understand the nuance of nonverbal cues.
Children who care for animals also learn to trust and respect others by having a positive relationship with an animal; as the child takes care of the animal, the animal responds positively and consistently. The child can trust the animal with their secrets, and the animal can become their best friend and confidante. All these attributes translate into human relationships, helping the child be a compassionate and kind friend and family member.
Animals can also connect children to nature and teach them to respect the natural world. Many animals have specific habitat needs, so the child needs to learn how to keep the animal comfortable and safe by learning about how they live in nature. Caring for the animal also takes the child out of our ever-expanding digital universe and back to nature, particularly with animals who need to spend time outside. Walking a dog or riding a horse brings the child out into nature and makes them leave technology behind for a while.
Physically, caring for an animal can provide lots of opportunities for exercise as well as “comfort contact.” Gently handling or petting an animal can reduce stress and be a positive physical outlet for difficult feelings. And animals that require exercise will get their child companion moving as well.
Children don’t have to live with animals to get these benefits, though, so if you’re just not ready to make the commitment to living with an animal companion, your child can try volunteering at animal shelters or sanctuaries or participating in reading to animal events often sponsored by local libraries. These activities can help the child develop an understanding of how significant the commitment is to live with an animal.
Deciding the share your home with an animal can be very beneficial to children. The adults in the home will need to teach and model appropriate behavior in caring for animals, and young children should not be expected to care for animals by themselves, but giving a child the primary responsibility for caring for a companion animal can have lifelong advantages and help the child develop into a caring and compassionate adult.