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Pets Can Teach Children How to Nurture and Care

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Children Develop Caregiving Skills with Pets

Children in homes with pets have great opportunities to develop critical caregiving abilities and social skills.  When children are encouraged to participate in caring for family pets at age appropriate levels they can begin to learn how to nurture and care for others.

Pets are not threatening and can be stress reducers for children.  Providing simple care based on a child's individual abilities will sow seeds of joy and responsibility.

Caring for pets is a neutral activity that is almost always a good fit for children.  Use these tips:

  • Praise your child often to make the experience positive.
  • Create a simple reward program using stickers, extra playtime, games or outings as treats.
  • A daily chart can provide your child with visual evidence of results and rewards.

Check with your veterinarian for more ideas to create the best home for your pets.

Gail Melson, author of Why the Wild Things Are:  Animals in the Lives of Children has been watching animals and children for some time.  She estimates that of every ten children, four grow up in a home that includes domestic animals.  She has determined that as many as 90 percent of all youngsters live with a pet at some point during their childhood.

Living with pets and caring for them can teach both boys and girls great lessons.

Young girls are usually encouraged to play with dolls and play house.  Girls learn to care and often actively begin tending to others in the home before the age of eight.  Girls will play dress-up with their animals, dolls and siblings.  Later, girls may become babysitters in their home or neighborhood. The social and caregiving skills learned in these activities are useful to girls throughout their lives.

"Nurturing animals is especially important for boys," Melson says.  Young boys are usually not encouraged similarly and may miss out on the opportunity to learn caregiving skills.  Balls, cars and sports typically occupy the interest of young boys.  Boys can care for pets in their home without fear of criticism or reproach; they are merely caring for their dog, cat, hamster or other animal.  Actually providing the care becomes the only issue and boys are able to feel comfortable with nurturing.  Taking care of an animal is not gender specific and both boys and girls can always remain equally involved.

"Nurturing isn't a quality that suddenly appears in adulthood when we need it," Dr. Melson advises. "And you don't learn to nurture because you were nurtured as a child.  People need a way to practice being caregivers when they're young."  Household pets provide frequent opportunities for young boys and girls to develop nurturing habits.  Caregiving for animals teaches them responsibility for seeing that the family dog or cat receives fresh water and food at certain times throughout the day.

Children can provide simple care from a very young age and fill greater needs as their abilities allow.  Caring for the family pets can also help children expand their sense of self awareness and develop an awareness about other people, time or space.  Children will also to develop their ability to anticipate needs.

Helping your child to become responsible for pets in your home needs to occur on a step-by-step basis.  The process must be implemented according to your child's cognitive abilities and physical abilities.  Remember that each child is different and has different levels of capabilities when you begin talking to them about caring for your household pets.

When your child is the responsible party for providing care for a pet in your home, always remember that you'll still need to keep your eye on the water dishes, food bowls, walks and potty trips.  You may find it necessary to provide gentle reminders for your child.  Creating happy notes and making simple awards like stickers, stars or allowing extra playtime will make the transition more fun for your child.  Involving the whole family to encourage your child will increase his or her success and enjoyment.

Veterinary Topics