(KIDS AND PETS) Dog, cat, goldfish, rabbit, horse–if you’re a parent it’s a safe bet that at some point your children have begged you to add at least one of these furry friends to the household. That’s if you’re not one of the estimated 62 percent of American household that already cares for at least one pet.
The general benefits of caring for a pet are well-documented, and include reducing the risk of depression, encouraging physical exercise, and opening up opportunities for social interaction. That’s on top of the sheer fun of having a pet–particularly a dog–who can often be the perfect playtime companion for energetic kids as well as acting as a guard dog to keep the family safe.
But what about the other benefits? Could having a pet help children develop the skills that are essential to becoming a well-rounded, capable adult?
Despite criticism about boosting self-esteem leading to children who think that they’re ‘special snowflakes,’ developing healthy self-esteem in childhood is linked to lower rates of depression, higher academic achievement, and a smaller likelihood of getting into trouble inside and outside school.
Repeated studies show a link between caring for a pet and higher levels of self-esteem in children. One reason for this is that having a pet gives even quite young children the opportunity to develop feelings of competency as they successfully help their parents care for a dependent animal. Although what is suitable varies by age group, even a three year old could give a dog a bowl of water, while adolescents can take the family dog for a walk, give them medication, or bathe them.
Pets are also a continual source of unconditional love and affection, leading children to rate the family pet only behind their parents in terms of what makes them feel good about themselves.
Knowing that they are capable of looking after a pet gives children the chance develop autonomy based on a core of self-esteem, which is vital for being able to take positive decisions in adolescence and adulthood. These could range from the confidence to study at a school across country if it offered the best program, or deciding to try out for a new sports team.
Who doesn’t want their child to be empathetic? It’s essential for building close personal relationships and, at a societal level, resilient communities where people help each other. Developing strong empathetic abilities in childhood is also linked to emotional intelligence in adulthood.
This doesn’t simply mean raising ‘nice children’ who go on to be ‘nice adults.’ Those with high levels of emotional intelligence tend to have greater success in their careers and increased earnings. Unsurprisingly, people with high EQ tend to make better leaders, too.
The good news for families with pets is that there seems to be a link between developing empathy and pet guardianship. Review some guidance on teaching empathy and it’s easy to see how a pet can help. We shouldn’t dismiss the possibility that empathetic children are more drawn to animals to begin with.
Resilience to stress
A survey of military children, who have to cope with moving frequently when parents are deployed, showed a strong link between contact with animals and an increased ability to deal with stressful situations. Children who had a parent deployed coped better if they spent quality time with an animal than if they didn’t. This included the ability to find social support and form close friendships as well as self-reliance.
Interestingly, the depth of the relationship between the child and the pet was a major factor, too. The more involved a child was in caring for the pet, the more likely they were to score during parental deployment.
This may be due to the way pets increase outward awareness and responsibility in children, as well as a possible a sense of agency. It also suggests that pets might be able to help children deal with other stressful situations, such as problems in school, family illness, or relocation.
It’s not just these so-called ‘soft skills’ that pets, particularly dogs, might be able to help children develop. Surprisingly, a study of second graders showed that the ones who read aloud to a dog actually made a small gain in their reading ability compared to those who read to an adult.
While this study was on such a small scale that it’s difficult to extrapolate significant findings, it does suggest that perhaps either the dog’s ability to reduce stress or their unconditional acceptance of the child’s reading has a beneficial effect.
An interest in animals is also a good jumping off point for children to start learning more about the natural world, whether it’s about different dog breeds or why cats eat different food from humans. This is an opportunity to start learning about natural history and biology, laying a foundation for high school science.
Having a family pet seems to offer real benefits for children in terms of development, but if parents want the best results, they need to ensure their child is actively involved in caring for the animal.
— Ella Jameson, Online Writer & Editor, @JamesonElla