Pets, Children and Prosocial Behaviour

Pets, Children and Prosocial Behaviour

by Kathy Green

Raising children to respect and treat those who are different from themselves with kindness can be engendered by teaching them to have compassion for their furry, feathered and finned friends. The National PTA Congress of the US has stated that, “Children trained to extend justice, kindness, and mercy to animals become more just, kind, and considerate in their relations to each other." An extension of this is that if children are learning to value one another that their behaviour will be less violent.

Children naturally like and are drawn to animals. Pets and children can share a deep bond, one that teaches children empathy, compassion and respect. Through modelling and guiding kind and sensitive behaviour to animals children are actually learning how to behave toward other people. The lifelong skill of empathy which is defined by the ability to feel the feelings of others, and to know when someone is uncomfortable, is an invaluable asset for children to learn.

The flip side is very frightening. The American Psychiatric Association considers cruelty to animals as one of three symptoms that predict the development of a psychopath, and it is included as a criterion for a conduct disorder in children. What they are saying is that, after decades of evidence, they believe that a child’s attitude toward animals can predict future behaviour. Further, published reports of every highly publicized school shooting note that one warning sign appeared consistently: all the young killers abused or killed animals before turning on their classmates.

Global evidence on the connection of animals and developing compassion in children is as follows:

  • Elizabeth Omerod, companion animal veterinary surgeon, and member of the Pet Health Council in London, England stated that "Studies demonstrate that children who interact with animals have higher levels of self esteem, greater empathy, and better social skills."
  • The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Los Angeles designed a TLC programme for at--risk teenagers. Typically these youth are involved in drugs, abuse, violence and bullying. These young people spend a month working with shelter dogs, teaching the animals basic obedience and giving them attention and companionship. The teenagers also learn about conflict resolution, anger management, coping skills, tolerance, and teamwork. For many of them, it stops the cycle of violence and helps them become productive citizens.
  • Polish researchers studied the impact of having an animal in the home on the social development of 530 children 4-8 years old. Those children with pets had higher scores in pro-social behaviour and self-esteem than those without pets
  • German studies showed that therapy dogs helped improve the behaviour of children 6--17 who were suffering from autism, anxiety disorder and eating disorders.
  • A study in Australia concluded that efforts to proactively support youth that included animals brought the most promising results for promoting nurturing and empathy.

Teaching children to respect animals helps them learn to respect people - others and themselves. By tuning in to an animal's feelings of wanting attention, love, food, companionship and respect, a child can grow up into a caring adult who can more intuitively tune in to other people's feelings as well.

The time and money a family spends in having a pet of any kind is rewarded in full measure by the benefits to the family, to both children and adults alike.


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