Fred Rogers talks about
"Pets often serve as a trustworthy confidant for a child's feelings of loneliness, sadness or fear. When adults and friends don't seem to have time to play, a child can usually count on a pet to be a partner in a game. When a child is sad, a pet can usually be counted on to "listen." When a child has been scolded and feels bad, a pet will still wag its tail nonjudgmentally and remind the child that he or she is still loved.”
For a child, a pet can be a trusted friend who gives unconditional love, a companion when no one else will play, a smaller creature over whom children have some control, and a comforter on difficult days. A pet can also help children learn about discipline and responsibility, about life and even death.
Challenges of Caring for a Pet
Young children aren't able to handle much of the responsibility that's involved in caring for a pet. They even have to be reminded of their own routines, like washing their hands before eating or brushing their teeth before going to bed. Nevertheless, it is possible, though, that through time a pet can help a child begin to learn to be a responsible caregiver.
We can't expect young children to be gentle and caring with a pet. To them, a pet is at first like a toy. Out of curiosity, they might hold the pet upside down, lift a floppy ear to see what's underneath, step on a tail, or try to ride a dog like a pony. Preschoolers don't see things from someone else's point of view. They may not even realize that a pet is a living creature.
Learning to Respect Animals
Some young children might think that there's a little person inside the pet -- and treat it as such. Animals are often given human qualities in children's books, television, movies, and puppetry, where animals talk, wear clothes, and even sing and dance! In fact, it's often through stuffed animals and picture books that the relationship between children and animals begins. But children soon find that real animals wiggle out of baby carriages and don't tolerate being dressed up in doll clothes. That's when children learn that a pet is an animal, who is to be treated like all other living creatures -- with gentleness and respect.
Parents and Pets
Parents must be partners with their children in sharing the work of feeding, caring for, and cleaning up after a pet. We need to make sure children don’t get overburdened by a responsibility they may not be ready for yet.
Parents need to help protect the pets, too. Young children can't be expected to know what to do about beaks and claws and teeth, and animals can't be expected to know what to do about hair pulling and squeezing.
What Children Can Learn from a Pet
When we explain to our children about the limits we give to our pets, such as where and how it's okay to play, our children can better understand why we make limits for them as well -- for health, safety, and for having some order in family life. When pets ignore those limits, children see us parents scold and make restrictions on the pet. In fact, many parents have overheard their children scolding a dog or cat for running out of the yard, in the same tone the adults have used! At times like that, children seem to be growing in their understanding that limits are expressions of affection.
No one can really predict exactly what changes will take place when a pet joins a family, but it's fairly certain that changes will happen -- some of them pleasant and others maybe not so pleasant. While pets generally add more complications to a household, they also add an enriching dimension to the many layers of caring and confirmation of family life.
Bringing a Pet into the Family:
When a pet dies:
This article is excerpted from “The Mister Rogers Parenting Book” the last book Fred Rogers worked on before his death in 2003. In this book he wanted to support parents in their most important work of parenting and to help them better understand their young children. As he wrote in the introduction to the book:
“.. if we can bring our children understanding, comfort, and hopefulness when they need this kind of support, then they are more likely to grow into adults who can find these resources within themselves later on.”