Yes, yes, and yes again! If at all possible, let your child have a pet. Technology means relationships with screens, but that cannot compare to sharing your life and bonding with a little ball of fur or fluff, writes Sabine Warren.

“Children who grow up with pets are often developmentally more advanced than children who have never experienced a close affinity with a pet. However, there is an important difference between owning a pet and having a relationship with a pet.”

So says Dr Sharon Kruger, an educational psychologist based in Midrand. “Relationships develop over time, and it is that bonding experience that largely promotes socio-emotional development. The child gets to think outside of their own point of view, they consider the animal’s feelings and needs, and learn to predict how the animal is going to act by being aware of his behaviour.
“Through their interactions with a pet, children learn to express love, joy, frustration and disappointment. They also learn to share, help, nurture the animal as well as they learn about the consequences of their actions.”

Kruger adds, “We know that interacting with a pet has therapeutic value in that it reduces stress, loneliness and depression, because the comforting tactile stimulus releases endorphins that can relieve anxiety.

“The most significant aspect of owning a pet is that it has no gender specification attached to it. It allows boys and girls to nurture, to be responsive to another’s needs and to care for another. This allows them to develop empathy and become more considerate of others.”

Having someone else’s welfare in your hands is an invaluable life lesson. As are consistency, and time management. No matter how your day goes, your pet still needs to be fed and looked after.

Choosing the right pet
But what is the appropriate pet? Dr R*, a Johannesburg vet, strongly recommends, “Dogs! Of any breed, especially puppies, so that the puppy and toddler can grow up together. Puppies love all the attention they can get. Older dogs may not be able to tolerate as much attention or play because of sore joints.

“If your toddler is still too little to be gentle, I would advise against any really small breed of dog as they may be more delicate to play with,” continues Dr R, “in which case, a very boisterous large breed may be a bit rough. The child-friendly breeds are labradors, golden retrievers, Boston and Staffordshire bull terriers, pugs, poodles and of course, crossbreeds. Generally, however, all dogs love children in a good home environment.

“Aside from dogs, when your toddler is old enough to play nicely, kittens are also a lovely option, and hamsters when they can understand they have to handle them very gently.”

Kruger says, “Safety is an important consideration. Choose a pet that allows a relationship of responsive interaction, that the child can manage appropriately and that does not become a nuisance. Pets should not only be appropriate for the child and family, but you should consider if the environment and your circumstances will be appropriate for the pet. Interactions with a pet can be a good platform for moral development as it provides an opportunity to teach children about right and wrong in relationships.”

Before rushing into this decision, it is also important to emphasise the responsibilities to your child. “They need to be prepared to give the dog all the attention and training that it needs, as well as regular exercise. Be sure to buy a breed that fits the garden space you have available. Also, single dog households are not ideal, as dogs are social pack animals and may develop behavioural problems if they live solitary lives,” warns Dr R.

As far as introducing the two to one another, he adds, “This should be in a very relaxed atmosphere, giving the dog a lot of attention so it doesn’t feel jealous of a new rival. However, in 99.9% of cases, it all works out perfectly.”

What if my child is afraid of the pet?
Kruger advises, “In the rare instance of a child being afraid of a pet, you should consider if that choice of pet is really suitable. What is the reasoning for this choice of pet? Owning a pet should always allow for a warm, responsive bonding experience, it should never be a status symbol or something that scares a child.

“Allow the child to overcome their fear by gradually introducing them to the idea of the pet. They may watch other people interact with the pet, read up about the pet or watch movies about the animal to try and overcome their fear before introducing the pet to your home.

Kruger adds that teaching children to take care of a pet includes teaching them about the responsibilities of pet ownership, and young children need adults to model appropriate pet care behaviour. “They need to be guided in being mindful of their pet’s needs. This includes allowing the pet to rest, feeding their pet and cleaning up after the pet. Of course daily chores of caring for a pet need to be age-appropriate and young children need a lot of guidance. It is important, therefore, to choose a pet appropriate to the child’s age and abilities, i.e. you won’t expect a toddler to clean out the fish tank or bath the labrador independently.

“Chores are about teaching responsibility and helping. With loving guidance children learn to respond to the needs of their pet. Teaching them about consideration and care is an important life skill. Apart from learning about relationships, kindness, co-operation and how to be responsible, children learn about life, how animals grow, develop, reproduce and also about loss.

“They learn about how to treat an animal fairly, but mostly they learn about unconditional love,” she concludes.

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