Pet ownership can teach kids many important values and build positive character traits like giving, empathy and kindness.
One of the overlooked opportunities of pet ownership, particularly if it is the right pet, is teaching our children how to care for something dependent on them. Kids can learn the art of kindness and compassion through caring for another creature and putting its needs first. The attachment to a pet is also incredibly important for developing empathy in older children.
At What Age Should Pets be Introduced?
In younger kids there are some benefits to emotional intelligence and pet ownership, however, the reality is that kids under 10 years of age can’t really be responsible enough to manage the day to day care of their pet. Piaget, the developmental psychologist proposed that the concrete operational stage between 6-12 years is the time when kids start to become less egocentric and are able to see outside their own needs. It is generally assumed that introducing kids and pets any earlier than 6 years is therefore probably not necessarily going to teach kindness and empathy. The period of greatest attachment to pets appears to be amongst 9-10-year-olds. Of course, the health benefits of pet ownership tend to come at any age, particularly in relation to allergies.
What Aspects of Kindness do Pets Teach Kids?
Giving and Loving
Kids are self-centered by nature, pets provide unconditional loyalty and love, and expect little in return. Children can learn by example the value of a friend that is giving and loving.
Kids see pets as part of the family and having a pet they need to take care of even when times are tough, or perhaps through illness teaches them what it means to be part of a family. That everyone takes care of one another.
By taking care of someone that is completely dependent on the family for basic needs of shelter, food and water, kids can develop a sense of responsibility.
Handling dogs and cats and our smaller pocket pets can be a great way to teach kids how to handle nature’s little creatures without hurting them. This, of course, takes practice, so younger children need to be closely watched, particularly around dogs. A child that learns how to hold a pet and recognise when the pet wants to be put down is starting to learn how to consider the needs of another creature.
The way pets are treated in the family is incredibly important for teaching empathy. If pets are constantly caged, never walked and played with, children can actually learn to disregard the needs of others. By learning to understand how much pleasure the dog gets from playing fetch and that the cat doesn’t like to be chased, kids can start to understand that everyone has different needs, planting those first seeds of empathy in their learning brains.
Which Pets Are Best?
Unfortunately, many pets end up being relinquished, often due to a mismatch between expectations and reality. All pets take time to care for, but some more than others! Kids with special needs such as autism may be best with a therapy dog that is specially trained. Cats can be very low maintenance but often don’t like to be cuddled. Dogs generally have the unconditional love trait down pat, so can be ideal pets for kids.
Where to Now?
If you are thinking of a pet, consider writing down what time you have available, the budget you have to work with and of course what you hope your children will gain from the experience. Involve them as much as possible in the decision-making process so that they understand the big picture and what is involved. Do as much research as possible and perhaps chat to your local vet about what pet they would recommend. As a vet Eloise Bright loves to help families select their ideal pet, she also recommends pet insurance to help cover those unexpected problems.