In addition to all the love, companionship, and exercise that pets can provide, research shows that helping care for a pet promotes aspects of children’s emotional development such as healthy self-esteem and a sense of responsibility. Here are some of the ways this can happen:
- Through caring for a pet, kids learn about the cause and effect relationship between their actions and the impact their actions have on others. For example, when you feed your dog every day (cause) –> the dog grows strong and healthy and is excited to see you (effect)! When you forget to feed Fido (cause) –> the dog goes hungry and gets into the garbage, making a mess which then needs to get cleaned up (effect)!
- When children are expected to help out with pets every day or every week on a consistent basis, they learn to follow through with a task and make responsible behavior a habit. For example, if you want to have a fish tank in your room, you have to keep it clean. The best way to do this is by making it part of your weekly routine!
- Helping with a pet teaches children to take good care of their things. When you spill something while feeding your pet, it’s important to clean it up to keep away smells, germs, and pests. It also keeps your pet’s area looking and smelling nice! Putting things back where they belong (your dog’s leash) helps make sure you can find it the next time you need it!
- Helping take care of a pet can lead to a child’s sense of accomplishment and competence. Their self-esteem grows from feeling pride in doing something important and doing it responsibly.
- Caring for their pet gives children an opportunity to show that they can be responsible, and experience the benefits of gaining the trust of another. It is a good feeling to know that your parent trusts you with an important responsibility, and with that trust eventually comes added privileges!
- Children (and adults!) inevitably make mistakes when caring for a pet, but this can be an opportunity for them to learn how to take ownership for a mistake and do their best to make it right. For example, if they let the dog out of the house without a leash, it is important for them to tell and adult and help get the dog back inside.
From a parenting perspective, you want to set your child up for success in helping care for a pet. For their safety and the safety of their pet, be sure to give them age-appropriate tasks that they have the physical and cognitive capacity to handle. For example:
- Age 3 –> Fill food bowl
- Age 5 –> Some basic grooming, clean pet’s area
- Age 8 –> Help exercise pet
Also, try and lead by example as much as you can. When you behave consistently in a certain way, your child is more likely to behave the same way. When your child makes mistakes, it’s best to stay calm and positive so your child can focus on learning and solving the problem rather than having to focus on their parent’s anger. Disapproval should be focused on a specific behavior (I don’t like it when you leave the door open) rather than on your child as a person (bad boy) in order to send the important message that you love your child even when they make a mistake.
Having a pet can be a rewarding experience for the whole family! Please share your story – we would love to hear how a pet has added to your family or to your child’s responsibility! What are some of the challenges you face while trying to involve your child in the care of your pet, and how do you handle those challenges?