With the right amount of forethought and planning, adopting a pet can be an enriching and rewarding experience for you and your children. Making the decision to bring a pet into your family will depend on a variety of factors, from the type of pet that fits with your family's lifestyle to the ages and needs of your children. There has been much research on the social and emotional benefits of the relationships children share with their pets. Here is more information about the developmental rewards of pet ownership and some expectations parents can set for children of different ages.
Younger than 3: Focusing on self
Children younger than 3 years old have not yet developed a capacity to think and act outside of their own needs. Developmentally, this is not an ideal time to introduce new pets into your family. If you already have a family pet, adult supervision is critical to ensure the safety of both your child and your pet. As your child grows into toddlerhood, help him develop self-control and respect for boundaries by setting clear limits on how he may or may not handle the pet.
Ages 3-6: Caring for others
Around age 3, children gradually become interested in their own self-care and begin to develop an understanding that people and animals are separate beings, each with his or her own feelings. Help children this age begin to learn about caring for and nurturing animals by including them in responsibilities such as helping with feeding and caring for the pet's habitat.
This is also an ideal time to talk about reading and understanding cues through body language. For example, you can describe animals' feelings based on your observations of their body language: "Her tail is down and her ears are back. Something must have worried her." Doing this opens up conversations about the cause and effect of experiences and reactions and can help a child recognize, understand and label her own feelings.
Ages 6 and older: Taking responsibility
Children 6 and older can gradually take on more responsibility with pet care. What was once "helping out" can become a part of your child's daily or weekly responsibilities. Conversations about feelings and the development of empathy for other living creatures continue to grow and evolve over time for this age group. Pets can become reliable companions to children as they approach and enter adolescence.
The life and death of a pet
A pet's life ultimately comes to an end, so welcoming one into your family means you will one day have to help your child through the experience of your pet's death. Helpful children's books about this difficult topic include Fred Rogers' When a Pet Dies and Judith Viorst's The Tenth Good Thing About Barney. As painful as a pet's death can be, the experience provides you with valuable opportunities to help your child identify and understand feelings that accompany loss and letting go.
As you contemplate adding a pet to your family, consider your children's ages and developmental levels, and whether they are ready to handle the adjustments and responsibilities that come with owning a pet. When done at the right time and with the right amount of support from all family members, adopting a pet can provide valuable experiences and lessons about respect, responsibility, relationships, feelings and empathy.
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