Sunday, August 7, 2011

Children Learn From Dogs

Parents often bring a pet into the family to teach kids a sense of responsibility, or perhaps to provide an only child with a playmate. But children often learn something more fundamental about themselves and the world: how to empathize with others, how to understand subtle feelings and how to look at the world from a vastly different perspective.

Children learn how the world and living things are interconnected because pets stimulate curiosity and build empathy. On the emotional level, pets can teach children many things:

Communication: Children learn the subtle cues their pets give them to indicate their feelings. They can later apply this lesson to human interaction because they are more attuned to watching for body posture.

Empathy: Children often become curious about the emotions their pets feel. This curiosity will extend itself to others. Animals offer an avenue for children to explore their curiosity which can lead to hope and to greater engagement with the world around them.

Nurturing skills: If properly supervised by adults, a child learns how to take care of another living being, and take pleasure in keeping the pet healthy and happy.

Confidence: Children go through life under constant evaluation. They are rated by their behavior, grades and athletic performance. This is especially true of middle school children. Pets have no such expectations; they are delighted that the child is with them. Pets give children the sense of unconditional acceptance, no judging or rating is involved.

Resilience to change: Children who undergo traumatic experiences often cope better when they have a pet to confide in. Loneliness is very challenging to children, and having an animal companion can make them feel a part of something.

A study published in 2000 explored the relationship between pets and children. Specifically, the study, conducted by a child psychologist in New Mexico, looked at the effect dog ownership had on 10- to 12-year-old children. The researcher, Robert E. Bierer, Ph.D., was surprised at the difference in empathy and self-esteem between preadolescents who owned a dog and those who did not.

Bierer's conclusions support the growing body of evidence that shows dog ownership has "statistically significant" impact on self-esteem and sensitivity toward others. He noted that teachers, parents and other children have expectations for a child to fulfill. A pet has no such measures of success or failure; acceptance is total, which provides a sense of self worth.

Pets also teach children about the importance of taking care of themselves. When they understand the importance of taking care of their pet, taking care of themselves becomes a natural transition.

This does not necessarily mean that all children are ready for pet ownership. Parents should first make sure their child desires a pet before rushing out to get one. Together, they should decide what type of pet is best. Moreover, do not assume your child will take care of the dog. The ultimate responsibility usually falls on the parent, not the kid, to make sure the pet is healthy.

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