"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."

Pets

By Fred Rogers

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.

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Challenges of Caring for a Pet

PetsYoung 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

petsWhen 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:

  • You may want to consider starting with a small pet, such as a fish, a bird, a gerbil, a hamster, a turtle, or a guinea pig. Caring for those pets is not terribly demanding. Also, that kind of pet is mostly for watching rather than handling, so with them, children can begin to learn about animals in a simple way.
  • Before you bring a pet home, you might want to help your child practice "gentle touching" by stroking a stuffed animal. Remember that young children are impulsive and they're just learning to control their hands and legs, so you may have to give a number of reminders about "gentle touch."
  • When a little pet is scurrying around or your cat is meowing or the dog is barking, you might ask your child, "What do you think he (or she) wants?" That can help your child think of the pet as a creature with needs and feelings and begin to respond with compassion.

When a pet dies:

  • The death of a pet reminds us all, young and old, that sad things that happen in life. It's natural to miss a beloved pet and to cry, no matter how old we are.
  • Everyone in the family has had special memories and a unique relationship with the pet, and each one has his or her own unique way of dealing with the death. Encourage your child to talk about the pet's death, so you can better understand what such a loss means to your child.
  • Whatever we can talk about can be far more manageable than if we don't talk about it. Also, looking at photos and talking about memories can help children know there are ways to keep their pet "alive" in their hearts."
  • Playing with a stuffed animal can give children a way to express their feelings and find comfort when a beloved pet dies. They might pretend to make their pet come alive again. In children's pretend play, they can be in control of what happens. Their drawings can help in that way, too.
  • Give your child time to grieve. Grieving is a process. Understanding what death means will come little by little. It often takes time for a child to be ready to accept a "replacement."
  • While much about death is a mystery, there are some things children can understand. For instance, we can tell them things like "When a pet dies, it doesn't need to eat, it can't see or hear, it isn't breathing and moving -- and it won't come to life again."
  • Children are quite literal, and they can be terribly afraid to go to sleep at night if they've heard about a pet "being put to sleep." They need to know that death is not like a daytime rest or a nighttime sleep.
  • Children may think a pet died as a punishment for being "bad." It’s important for them to hear that all pets and all children do "bad" things now and then. They also need to know that it wasn’t anything they did that made the pet die…and they cannot make it come back to life again.
  • Many families find it helpful to have a funeral for the pet. Just being together, sharing thoughts and feelings with family and friends, can begin to make children feel better and help them remember the happy times with their pet.

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