When a child learns to love animals, she’s learning the art of compassion and developing the necessary emotional skills to empathize with other living beings. Kids naturally seem to gravitate towards animals, but loving and properly caring for them are skills that must be learned, rather than innate abilities. When you foster a love of animals in your child, you’re helping her to learn the importance of looking out for those that have trouble helping themselves and the necessity of being gentle, patient and affectionate. Kids that are taught to look after animals and to treat them with respect are learning the fundamentals of social interaction by understanding that it’s not okay to be a bully or to take advantage of weaker beings. Instilling that love and compassion, however, can be a bit of a challenge if you don’t know where to start.
Get a Pet
The quickest and most direct route to helping your little one learn to love animals is helping them learn to love one animal in particular. One that lives in your home and is part of the family, not a puppy that’s banished to a kennel in the backyard when he struggles with housebreaking or is figuring out not to chew up shoes. It’s important that you carefully research your options before bringing a pet home, though. The last thing you want to do is present your child with a pet and encourage her to love it, only to send it away when the animal doesn’t suit your lifestyle. Remember that a commitment to pet ownership is a promise you make for life, not a decision to be made on a whim.
Model Compassionate Attitudes
When you’re trying to do something and the family dog is barking incessantly, your first instinct may be to shout something rude like, “shut up” or “that dumb dog.” While you’re only venting your frustration and saying things that you don’t mean, your children are observing you and taking cues from your behavior to determine how they’re supposed to react. Modeling respectful behavior means that you not only let your children see you behaving in a loving and compassionate manner, but that you help them to understand why it’s never okay to call anyone names or demean them, even if they’re getting on your nerves or can’t understand your words.
Think Twice About Shelter Volunteering
At first blush, volunteering at your local animal shelter may seem like an ideal way to help your kids learn about compassionate animal care if you can’t take in a pet of your own. It’s actually not the best idea, as evidenced by the policies of the shelters themselves. Many animal shelters won’t even allow kids under the age of 16 to volunteer, and there are reasons for that policy that extend far beyond insurance and liability concerns.
Helping out at a shelter will allow your child to help cats learn to socialize, to walk puppies and to learn the basics of animal care. It will also teach them to love individual animals, and can lead to heartbreak when they eagerly come in to find that a favorite has been adopted into another home. Even worse, your little one would have to deal with the inevitability of losing a furry friend if he volunteers at a shelter that euthanizes when they reach capacity. Before you start looking for shelters that will allow kids to volunteer, make sure you’re working with no-kill shelters and that your child is well prepared for the day that his favorites go home to their new, forever families.
Watch Your Language
When you’re walking down the street and you see a strange dog without a leash, the compulsion to protect your child is an instinctual one. Rather than pulling your youngster to the other side of the street with an explanation about how the dog could bite him or be dangerous, consider your language carefully. Instilling a fear that every dog could bite him is only teaching your child to fear all dogs, not to love and respect them. Try explaining that every dog is different, and that it’s smart to only approach dogs that he knows, or that some dogs aren’t used to strangers. Teaching an instinctual fear of something different not only imparts a fear of all dogs, but also sends the message that they’re to be avoided at all costs. Rather than commenting on how gross a frog is, talk about how neat his skin feels. Don’t use negative adjectives when you describe animals, because your child’s ideas are formed by what he gleans from your words.