What is it about animals that draw us to them, and sometimes in excessive measures? Most curious of all is that our affinity toward animals begins in early childhood as infants and young children. We tuck our little ones in to bed at night with all sorts of stuffed animals, such as teddy bears. Even the vast majority of children’s books use animals as their characters. A New York Times article by Jon Mooallem, entitled “The Wild Kingdom of Childhood,” stated that “Almost from birth, children seem drawn to other creatures all on their own. In studies, babies as young as six months try to get closer to, and provoke more physical contact with, actual dogs and cats than they do with battery-operated imitations.”
Children growing up around animals tend to be more compassionate and empathetic. When children care for an animal, it teaches them to be nurturing and allows them to be nurtured as well. Ascione (2005) stated that “empathy is believed to be a critical component of pro-social behavior, a term that connotes kindness, helping, cooperation, nurturance, and unselfishness in our relations with others.” He further asserts that these qualities of empathy are more likely to develop if children experience being cared about and cared for by others. Some of the greatest caring a child can receive is the unconditional love of a pet. When a child experiences the love of a pet, it teaches them self-acceptance and self-love.
For children who have pets, the effect is even greater because of the interactions that occur on a regular basis. Children with pets have higher self-esteem, are more physically fit, less lonely, more caring, more extroverted, less fearful, and less preoccupied. Maybe it’s the non-verbal communication that exists between a young child and an animal that helps them to understand cues such as feelings and body language.
Interactions with animals help boost creativity as well. Children will anthropomorphize animals putting them in the roles of people, just like they see in their story books. They will engage in creative free play with stuffed animals and pets. With animals, they let their imagination run wild for there is no judgment put upon them and that allows a child greater creative freedom. Creativity is a highly valued skill set in the work force these days. According to a recent survey of 1,500 chief executives conducted by IBM’s Institute for Business Value (IBV), CEOs identify “creativity” as the most important leadership competency for the successful enterprise of the future. So, let your child’s imagination run wild – literally.
The irony is that during early childhood, youngsters tend to be very animal-like themselves. Children under the age of six tend to be very self-centered, ego-centric, and not overly attuned to the feelings and emotions of others. A child’s relationship with animals whether they are a pet or not helps children to be ready for school and life as their interactions help build skills such as creativity, self-esteem, fitness and communication. Somewhere along the way animals impact our children’s development and on some level, we as parents perceive that, otherwise we wouldn’t be decorating nurseries with animal themes, buying stuffed animals and taking our children to zoos and game farms.