One warm summer day, 5-year-old Jack took his pet turtles, Shell and Barry, outside so they could enjoy the sun and be out of their tank. As he played with the turtles in the backyard, a large crow swooped down and grabbed Barry. The bird flew off but soon dropped the turtle, which was badly injured as a result of the fall. Jack was devastated and pleaded with his father to take the turtle to the veterinarian. The veterinarian suggested that Jack give the turtle a daily dose of medicine, but was clear that even the best care might not save him.
As it turned out, Barry lived for months. What an experience for a young child! Jack's story shows how much a child can learn from a pet — the life cycle of living things, compassion, empathy, and responsibility — no matter what kind of animal it might be. Jack accepted the task of caring for the injured animal, and he kept the turtle alive and comfortable for as long as he could. When death finally came, Jack was able to accept the loss and took comfort in the fact that he truly cared for his pet.
Most children are fascinated by animals and feel a natural connection to them, whether they're family pets or live in a zoo, a park, a classroom, or on a farm. It might be the cuddly cuteness of a kitten, the frolicking play of a puppy, or the mysterious slither of a snake that captivates them. The effect is always pure delight. It's no wonder that the story lines of countless classic books and favorite characters are based on animals, from Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit to Norman Bridwell's Clifford, the Big Red Dog. Children can relate to an animal's innocence, vulnerability, and in the case of pets, dependence on others for survival.
Animals as Teachers
We know that animals make great companions and playmates, but animals are also wonderful teachers. Children know that a pet will love and accept them unconditionally, which builds self-esteem. What's more, research suggests that social, emotional, and cognitive development is enhanced when a child cares for a pet. Some studies have found that pet ownership can encourage language and communication skills, because children tend to talk to their animals — to confide their feelings, show affection, give commands, and sometimes even incorporate them into their pretend-play scenarios.
Perhaps most important, children who own pets or have direct experiences with animals (in a classroom, for example) feel more empathy for other people from an early age, in part because they learn to understand the feelings and needs of animals that are dependent on their owners.
Here are some ways animals can enrich your child's world, even if you don't have a pet:
- Visit a park, zoo, farm, or a family friend who has animals. Let your child see what it takes to feed, clean, and care for another living thing.
- Teach respectful interaction with animals. Encourage your child to think about things from the animal's perspective, and explain proper treatment. Chasing after pigeons in the park might seem like fun, but it scares the birds.
- Take a walk. If you have a dog, take a family walk together, or offer to take your neighbor's dog for a walk.
- Create a Zen moment. Watching fish swim back and forth in a tank has been linked to reduced stress. Watching a hamster run on its wheel or a bunny nibble a snack will also hold your child's attention and create a calming effect.
- See the loss of a pet as a learning experience. How parents react at this difficult time can affect the way children deal with death in general. Explain that death is a part of life and express your own grief verbally. This will help your child cope.