A Parenting Dialogue: Should I Get My Child a Pet?
My 4-year-old daughter has been asking/pleading for a pet for months now. I feel like it could be a good learning experience for her. I'm just not sure if she's ready for the extra responsibility (not sure I am either, if I'm being honest). She's very sweet with animals. Should I get my child a pet?
The New Mom
For me, the bottom line is if you think she’ll care about treating the pet right, and listen to you when you tell her how to do so. That’s a personality issue more than anything. If your child pulls a cat’s tail in play, and you tell her that’s not something you should do to cats, will she listen? If you teach her how to play with a cat or dog properly, will she want to do that? Does she want a pet enough to understand that learning how to treat it properly is important?
Other than that, there’s the question of how much you’ll expect your daughter to help take care of the pet, but for me, the pet’s safety is the one make-or-break issue. A lot has to do with empathy. If you tell your daughter that something would hurt a pet, will they care?
If your kids can follow whatever rules you set for interaction with the pet, I think everything else is really secondary…though bearing in mind that if they promise to care for the pet and don’t, you will have to do it.
-- Shawn, mother of one toddler
The Experienced Mother
I’m going to be real. No matter how much a child swears up and down the pet will be 100% their responsibility, it never ends up being that way. The responsibility always ends up being unloaded on the rest of the family once the novelty wears off. So, unless you want a pet, do not get one. It’s okay to say no. She will live. She can have a dog when she's older and lives on her own, or when you guys are more ready for the task.
When my children were younger, our family decided to foster a few dogs through a shelter in our area. There are a lot of benefits to fostering. For one thing, the dog is temporary and if things escalate beyond your capabilities, the rescue and shelter will always take them back. Also, the dog's needs are often paid for by the organization (including medications, food, etc.). It also frees up space in the shelter for another animal to be saved. Your daughter gets to experience the joy of a dog, helping the dog adjust to "family life," and gets to unite this animal with their forever family (which can be a sad, but very rewarding experience). You can do it repeatedly or just once without feeling like you're living in a zoo 24/7. It’s a great way to do a trial run with pets, in my opinion, while helping others at the same time.
-- Katie, mom of four grown children
The Psychiatrists' Approach
Pets are a common part of many kids' lives, and ensuring a positive experience requires parental involvement, open communication, and thoughtful planning. Teaching children to care for and treat animals kindly provides valuable training in treating people the same way. Careless treatment of pets is harmful to both the animal and the child.
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), children raised with pets experience various benefits, contributing to self-esteem, self-confidence, and positive relationships. Positive interactions with pets foster the development of trust, non-verbal communication, compassion, and empathy. Pets also serve multiple purposes for children, acting as confidants, providing life lessons, promoting responsible behavior, connecting to nature, and teaching respect for living things.
To enjoy a positive experience, parents need to be actively involved and plan accordingly. Teaching children to care for animals not only benefits the pet but also imparts important lessons in treating people with kindness and patience. Neglecting or mistreating animals is detrimental to both the pet and the child involved. AACAP says that caring for a pet can enhance children's social skills, but urges parents to keep the following guidelines in mind:
- Children under 3-4 years old lack the maturity to control impulses and should be supervised with pets.
- Kids under 10 are not capable of independently caring for larger pets like cats or dogs.
- Parents should oversee pet care, even if they think their child is old enough to handle it.
- If a child neglects a pet, parents may need to take over the responsibility.
- Gentle reminders about a pet's needs are more effective than scolding.
- If neglect persists, finding a new home for the pet may be necessary.
- Parents serve as role models for responsible pet ownership.
While most children interact appropriately with pets, some may display rough or abusive behavior. Persistent abusive behavior may indicate emotional problems, warranting referral to a child and adolescent psychiatrist for evaluation.
The Holistic Approach
A:Montessori learning is renowned for its holistic approach to education and how it values the development of the whole child – intellectually, socially, emotionally, and physically. By extension, incorporating this holistic philosophy at home can involve having your child care for family pets, fostering the development of various skills and positive character traits in the "whole child."
According to House on the Hill Montessori Pre-School, there are five important ways pets can enhance a child’s holistic learning.
- Caring for pets teaches children love, empathy, compassion, and respect for all living things, aligning with Cosmic Education in the Montessori Philosophy that emphasizes the interconnectedness of everything.
- Responsibility and self-confidence are nurtured as children care for pets, remembering to feed them and clean up after them, empowering kids to take charge of their duties.
- Treating animals with grace and courtesy helps children extend these concepts to their interactions with others, practicing gentle touches and respectful behavior.
- Pets provide an opportunity for children to understand and interpret non-verbal language, such as recognizing a pet's cues for space during playtime.
- Having a pet at home allows children to develop skills essential for future studies in science and other subjects. Observing the animal's habits sparks curiosity, encourages asking questions, seeking clues, forming hypotheses, and finding answers.
Caring for animals is a means for children to acquire essential life skills, fostering their ability to communicate, understand speech, and enhance independence. Involvement with pets and other animals contributes to the development of sensory awareness, physical coordination, and motor skills. The process of caring for another living being instills self-control and coordination in children. Additionally, taking care of animals allows children to practice responsibility and respect, as it involves considerable effort to meet the needs of a pet or animal.
The Bottom Line
When it comes to deciding whether to welcome a pet into your child's life, there are a lot of considerations, and each family's dynamics play a pivotal role. As you can see, the decision goes beyond the surface level of cuteness and companionship. While the benefits of fostering responsibility, empathy, and companionship are apparent, the commitment involved cannot be overstated. Ultimately, the choice to introduce a pet into your child's world is a personal one, influenced by lifestyle, values, and the readiness of the entire family. With some thoughtful reflection and a full understanding of the responsibilities and joys involved, your family can embark on a journey that not only enriches your child's life but also creates lasting memories and lessons.
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