Why the Wild Things Are

Animals and nature in the lives of children.

Bringing Up Puppy

Animal care can make a child more nurturing.

In the get-ahead pressure cooker that is modern childhood, how do kids learn about being kind, caring, and nurturing? Caring for a pet responsibly may well be an important training ground for children to gain skills in care-giving that will carry into adulthood. In the 21st century, helping children become better nurturers throughout their lives has never been more important. Parents are working longer and harder, and thus, need to call on others to share child care. We are living longer, managing life with disabilities and illnesses that often had proved fatal in earlier times. With a ripe old age comes increased dependence on others for supportive care-giving. How can we help children prepare to be sensitive, responsive and involved nurturers of others throughout their lives?

In today’s smaller families, many children don’t have baby brothers and sisters around. Grandma is not likely to be living out her final days in the spare bedroom. This means that children seldom get to observe and even help out in nurturing the young, the sick, or the elderly. But a needy, dependent creature is living in an estimated 75% of children’s families – the family pet. Dogs, cats, birds, fish, hamsters or rabbits--no matter the species--pets are dependent on their human owners for responsive, appropriate and sensitive care. These are exactly the fundamental building blocks of nurture that children must learn.

Pet care may teach empathy as well. A child has to walk in the paws of a very different creature, with different needs and wants. Ice cream might help scraped knees feel better, but it’s not the best treat for a parrot with an injured wing. Taking the perspective of someone or something very different from ourselves—as a different species of animal surely is—stretches and strengthens our empathy ‘muscles’ at any age. It’s a particularly great exercise in emotional understanding for young children, who often find empathy a tough go. Some research finds that young children with pets—and involved in their care—show higher empathy.

Nurturing pets might be especially helpful for boys as they grow up. In a series of studies I conducted at Purdue University with Prof. Alan Fogel (now at University of Utah), boys and girls by age five identified caring for young children and babies, as well as elderly persons, as part of the feminine role, or as one child told us: “It’s a mommy thing.” In observations of children with mothers and babies, we also found that boys were much less responsive to helping out with baby care, even when a mother asked for assistance. By contrast, both boys and girls thought about pet care as unrelated to gender roles, equally appropriate for males and females. In fact, we found that boys and girls were equally involved with pet care in the home. At the same time, for children with younger siblings, boys spent less time than girls helping with child care.

Will a puppy make a five year boy a better dad thirty years later? It’s premature to make such a sweeping claim. The ingredients of successful parenting are so varied and complex, it’s unlikely that the family dog or cat alone makes such a difference. Nevertheless, nurturing a pet is a wonderful opportunity to bring lessons of kindness and caring into a child’s daily life. What’s more, your pet will thank you and your child for being such great care-givers.

Gail F. Melson, Ph.D., is Professor of Child Development and Family Studies at Purdue University.

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