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When we teach children to be kind to animals, we're showing them the importance of extending compassion and empathy to other living beings. It's an important and valuable lesson that will help them connect on many levels.
Animals can teach kids about empathy, kindness, and self-esteem. One research paper said: "Studies on pet ownership and social development provided evidence for an association with increased social competence; social networks; social interaction and social play behaviour."
These tips give you 5 ways to show kindness to animals and to teach kids about their behaviour and the importance of respecting their environment.
1. Observing animals in the wild
The best way to show children that animals have their own unique place in the world is by observing them in their natural habitat. Taking children to see captive animals perform tricks in a circus or in a theme park reinforces the problematic idea that animals exist for the sole purpose of serving humans (i.e. through entertainment).
Spending time in nature (e.g. bushwalking, visiting a park) is a great way to help your child develop a deep connection and reverence for the natural world. Teach your child the importance of respecting wild animals from a distance and protecting their habitat by not littering. This is an important way they can be kind to animals.
2. Read books about the natural behaviours of other animals
Most children have a natural fascination for animals and are eager to learn about them. Choose books that focus not only on the habitat, diet, and physical traits of different species but on their social, emotional and behavioural traits (e.g. chimpanzee forming social hierarchies, elephants working together to protect young calves). Talk to your child about which qualities humans share with other animals – you may be surprised by how insightful their responses can be.
3. Give them responsibility for caring for an animal
If you care for an animal at home, give your child responsibility for meeting its basic needs by setting them age-appropriate tasks (e.g. refilling the water bowl). Teaching children the importance of responsible pet guardianship is a valuable way to nurture kindness and consideration for the needs of others.
Emphasize the importance of providing food, fresh water, and regular exercise to be kind to animals under your care. Don’t forget to also emphasize the importance of providing regular companionship and love – animals feel loneliness, just like we do.
4. Encourage respectful behaviour and language
For toddlers and children handling animals for the first time, teach them to be gentle and to avoid touching an animal who shows clear signs of wanting to be left alone. Discourage your child from taunting animals, even if it’s only verbal, as this can lead to a pattern of disrespect which can manifest into something more sinister down the track. If you have an unwanted house guest, like a cockroach or a mouse, consider trapping it safely and releasing it outside. Children learn best by following your example, and setting an example of peaceful, considerate and respectful behaviour is one of the most powerful lessons they can learn from you.
5. Visit a local animal shelter
Visiting a local animal shelter will teach your child about the positive and negative impacts humans can have on other animals. Thousands of healthy, unwanted dogs and cats are abandoned and euthanised every year due to human actions. Animal shelters play a crucial role in rehoming abandoned animals and giving them a second chance to find a loving home. You can help your child make a difference by donating food and blankets or making handmade pet toys for shelter dogs and cats. Creating signs and posters to educate the local community on responsible pet guardianship is another way you can work together to create awareness. By practising active citizenship in your community and participating in volunteer work, your child will feel empowered in their ability to make a positive change to the lives of others.
If you would like to share how your children show kindness towards animals, please submit your story and photos (if you have them) here.