In the absence of felines, though, we had one of everything else. We had fish, gerbils, hamsters, turtles, birds and dogs. As each of these pets became an important member of our family, the two of us did our part in taking care of them.
Of course, the animals liked to make it challenging.
We both remember a time when one gerbil got out of its cage. We chased it from room to room while it darted under couches and behind bookcases. By dinnertime, we were tired and the gerbil still at large. The search was put on hold as we ate – until it ran straight through the kitchen.
By the time we got the gerbil back in its cage, Mom and Dad made it our new task to ensure it stayed there. We obliged – only for about as long as the attention span of two young boys would allow. Inevitably, the gerbil managed to make a few other breaks.
How having a pet can teach compassion to your child
Aside from getting a good workout, we began taking on new levels of responsibility with each and every one of our pets. Whether it was keeping the gerbil confined, cleaning out its cage or making sure it and the others were well-fed, we took pride in making sure each chore was completed.
More than that, we also learned why these needs had to be fulfilled. These pets were friends who displayed their happiness whenever we appeared with fresh water. By caring for them, we learned a lesson in compassion.
Showing kindness to people and kindness to animals is really not that different, when you think about it. The relationship between a child and a pet is a fantastic way to nurture a sense of compassion that can then be conveyed to the world.
Caring for a pet involves getting to know its feelings and how it communicates. All animals – be it dog, cat or bird – use varying movements and vocalizations to express their needs. As kids develop relationships with their pets, they learn to read these communications. Then, by charging them with taking care of the pet, a child can learn how to make it more comfortable.
For example, dogs usually turn to high-pitched whines or stamping their paws when they are looking to be fed. A parent can teach their children what these signals mean and allow them to fill up their pet's dish in response. Providing a dog with food is an easy avenue to gain its trust (they say the easiest way to someone’s heart is through their stomach). When it's finished eating, the child will learn that a friendly lick is a dog’s way of showing affection.
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While your kid (and you) might cringe from that slobbery tongue on your face, the bond it helps create has been proven to impact other relationships. In one study by the Dr. James Serpell of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society found that kids who have a strong relationship with a pet have a more caring attitude towards animals and adults as they get older. As well, they saw an increased level of empathy, especially among boys.
But more than just developing a sense of compassion, a family pet is a great way to bring everyone together.
Every pet-owning family has stories about the time the dog got into the leftovers, or photos of the kids with the family cat. For us, even though our renegade gerbil is long gone, we still laugh at the time it tried to make an escape through the kitchen and two of us went barreling after it.
We may never have lived up to that promise of keeping it in the cage, but we did learn a thing or two about compassion. Through our chases, Mom and Dad learned a lesson in patience.
Tips for parents:
1. Give responsibility: Allow your kids to take a lead role in taking care of the family pet. The added responsibility will help to boost self-esteem and develop compassion.
2. Take Mom and Dad for a walk: Make activities like walking the dog a family affair. This is a great way to turn a chore into some quality family time.
3. Volunteer at an animal shelter: This will help teach children how to take care of pets and allow them to feel like they are doing something for their community.
Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of Free The Children, the world's largest network of children helping children through education.
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