Posts tagged ‘using pets to teach empathy’

December 17, 2014

Kids and Cats: How Caring for Pets Can Increase Our Environmental Stewardship

by Melissa Harding

 

“Until one has loved an animal,  a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” – Anatole France

Many of us have pets at home; whether it is a cat, dog, gerbil or fish, these critters play an important role in our lives. In fact, about two-thirds of American homes have at least one pet.  We often think of our pets as our companions. We dote on them, play with them, and try to get them to behave. While we know that our pets can make us smile, they are also giving us many unseen benefits. They are a good source of social and emotional support, increasing overall well-being. Research shows that pet owners fare better than non-pet owners in the areas of self-esteem and physical fitness. They are also found to be less lonely, less fearful, more extroverted and more conscientious than non-pet owners. In children, the effects are even greater; caring for a pet teaches empathy, kindness, and responsibility. However, there is one more benefit pets can give us that has only recently begun to be studied: greater connection to nature. Caring for pets has been shown to increase our ability to care for nature in general and to increase our feelings to connectedness to the natural world. After all, we only care about (and for) the things we love.

When we talk about nature, we don’t often think of the animal companions that we interact with every day. However, human interaction with domesticated animals goes back many generations. The earliest known domesticated animal was not a cow or a pig, but a dog. We have been domesticating animals for companionship longer than for food, that much is clear. Maybe that’s because humans naturally want to connect with animals. E.O. Wilson hypothesized this connection to animals in his theory of biophilia, which says that humans are innately drawn to the natural world. By seeking relationships with animals, especially with pets, we are able to connect with nature. It has been suggested that owning a pet symbolizes a unity with nature and acts to satisfy part of this human need for a connection to the natural world. Humans love being with animals, both wild and domesticated. After all, we are all part of nature, our pets included.

There is also research showing that attachment to animals correlates with a positive orientation towards the environment and vice versa. In other words, it seems that your love for your pet makes you more likely to feel connected to nature and that if you feel connected to nature, you are more likely to feel a bond with animals. So how does connecting to nature through our pets get us to be better environmental stewards? To answer this, we need to get into some environmental psychology. There are three psychological components to a person’s connection with nature: a sense of connection, a caring response and commitment to action. In a scenario in which there is a connection to the natural world, that connection leads to caring for nature and then to taking actions on its behalf; in a scenario in which a connection to nature is absent, that lack leads to caring for oneself and then taking actions to protect oneself above all else. If we are feeling more connected to nature through our pets, then we will be more likely to take actions that protect the natural world that we care so much about.

IMG_1402However, you probably don’t need a psychologist to tell you what you can already observe in your children and yourself; there is ample research showing that children learn nurturing skills by bonding with and caring for pets. Many naturalist educators, including David Sobel, advocate for cultivating children’s relationships with animals from a very young age as a way of increasing their empathy for nature. The bond that forms between children and animals has been shown to increase social competence and sense of well-being. As a child cares for and nurtures an animal, he or she develops a sense of empathy, which in turn promotes pro-social behaviors towards other people and the natural world. This is not only a predictor of a successful adult, but also a predictor of a future naturalist.  Its clear that the attitude of stewardship taught through walking a dog carries through into the rest of life.

A Henry Ward Beecher once said, “The dog was created especially for children. He is the God of frolic.” Dogs and other pets are great companions for children and wild animals can be excellent examples as well. Here are some ways that you can use help your child bond with the natural world through animals:

1.  Give responsibility: The best way to promote caring for animals is to actually care for them. Give your child responsibility towards the pets in your home, making sure that the assigned tasks are developmentally appropriate for your child’s age level and abilities. Support your child in this work, helping them to remember that they take care of their pets not because it is a chore, but because their pet needs them. Encourage your child’s teacher to consider a classroom pet; check out this website for convincing reasons why.
2. Go for a walk: Beyond pets, also search for wild animals on your walks. Children always enjoy seeing animals in their journeys; point out birds, squirrels, and other pets. It doesn’t matter if they are common, children will be excited to spot them.
3. Go to the zoo or aquarium: Seeing wild animals is very exciting for children of all ages (adults as well).  Many zoos have programs that allow visitors to help feed and care for the animals, as well as petting areas for children. Point out staff taking care of the animals you see.
3. Look for examples: Animals play a central role in many children’s books and media (up 90% of counting and language-learning books); this can be a great way to expose children to animals from other parts of the world or situations they are unlikely to experience themselves. Use the examples of human/animal interaction to talk with your child about proper behavior towards animals. Ask your child to view the situation from the animal’s perspective. Also have a discussion about the animal’s role in the world, whether it is in a neighborhood, a home, or a wild habitat.
4. Recognize undesirable behavior: Mistreatment of animals can be a warning sign of developing aggressive behavior. Deliberately harmful or frightening actions towards animals should be discouraged. While very young children are often not developmentally able to understand proper behavior towards animals, older children may need parental intervention if negative behavior persists. The Human Society has a helpful guide in dealing with negative behavior towards animals.

To learn more about how interaction with the natural world can increase empathy in children, check out this post.

The above photos were taken by Jeff Harding.

 

 

March 25, 2014

Kids and Cats: How Caring for Pets Can Increase Our Environmental Stewardship

by Melissa Harding

 

“Until one has loved an animal,  a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” – Anatole France

Many of us have pets at home; whether it is a cat, dog, gerbil or fish, these critters play an important role in our lives. In fact, about two-thirds of American homes have at least one pet.  We often think of our pets as our companions. We dote on them, play with them, and try to get them to behave. While we know that our pets can make us smile, they are also giving us many unseen benefits. They are a good source of social and emotional support, increasing overall well-being. Research shows that pet owners fare better than non-pet owners in the areas of self-esteem and physical fitness. They are also found to be less lonely, less fearful, more extroverted and more conscientious than non-pet owners. In children, the effects are even greater; caring for a pet teaches empathy, kindness, and responsibility. However, there is one more benefit pets can give us that has only recently begun to be studied: greater connection to nature. Caring for pets has been shown to increase our ability to care for nature in general and to increase our feelings to connectedness to the natural world. After all, we only care about (and for) the things we love.

When we talk about nature, we don’t often think of the animal companions that we interact with every day. However, human interaction with domesticated animals goes back many generations. The earliest known domesticated animal was not a cow or a pig, but a dog. We have been domesticating animals for companionship longer than for food, that much is clear. Maybe that’s because humans naturally want to connect with animals. E.O. Wilson hypothesized this connection to animals in his theory of biophilia, which says that humans are innately drawn to the natural world. By seeking relationships with animals, especially with pets, we are able to connect with nature. It has been suggested that owning a pet symbolizes a unity with nature and acts to satisfy part of this human need for a connection to the natural world. Humans love being with animals, both wild and domesticated. After all, we are all part of nature, our pets included.

There is also research showing that attachment to animals correlates with a positive orientation towards the environment and vice versa. In other words, it seems that your love for your pet makes you more likely to feel connected to nature and that if you feel connected to nature, you are more likely to feel a bond with animals. So how does connecting to nature through our pets get us to be better environmental stewards? To answer this, we need to get into some environmental psychology. There are three psychological components to a person’s connection with nature: a sense of connection, a caring response and commitment to action. In a scenario in which there is a connection to the natural world, that connection leads to caring for nature and then to taking actions on its behalf; in a scenario in which a connection to nature is absent, that lack leads to caring for oneself and then taking actions to protect oneself above all else. If we are feeling more connected to nature through our pets, then we will be more likely to take actions that protect the natural world that we care so much about.

IMG_1402However, you probably don’t need a psychologist to tell you what you can already observe in your children and yourself; there is ample research showing that children learn nurturing skills by bonding with and caring for pets. Many naturalist educators, including David Sobel, advocate for cultivating children’s relationships with animals from a very young age as a way of increasing their empathy for nature. The bond that forms between children and animals has been shown to increase social competence and sense of well-being. As a child cares for and nurtures an animal, he or she develops a sense of empathy, which in turn promotes pro-social behaviors towards other people and the natural world. This is not only a predictor of a successful adult, but also a predictor of a future naturalist.  Its clear that the attitude of stewardship taught through walking a dog carries through into the rest of life.

A Henry Ward Beecher once said, “The dog was created especially for children. He is the God of frolic.” Dogs and other pets are great companions for children and wild animals can be excellent examples as well. Here are some ways that you can use help your child bond with the natural world through animals:

1.  Give responsibility: The best way to promote caring for animals is to actually care for them. Give your child responsibility towards the pets in your home, making sure that the assigned tasks are developmentally appropriate for your child’s age level and abilities. Support your child in this work, helping them to remember that they take care of their pets not because it is a chore, but because their pet needs them. Encourage your child’s teacher to consider a classroom pet; check out this website for convincing reasons why.
2. Go for a walk: Beyond pets, also search for wild animals on your walks. Children always enjoy seeing animals in their journeys; point out birds, squirrels, and other pets. It doesn’t matter if they are common, children will be excited to spot them.
3. Go to the zoo or aquarium: Seeing wild animals is very exciting for children of all ages (adults as well).  Many zoos have programs that allow visitors to help feed and care for the animals, as well as petting areas for children. Point out staff taking care of the animals you see.
3. Look for examples: Animals play a central role in many children’s books and media (up 90% of counting and language-learning books); this can be a great way to expose children to animals from other parts of the world or situations they are unlikely to experience themselves. Use the examples of human/animal interaction to talk with your child about proper behavior towards animals. Ask your child to view the situation from the animal’s perspective. Also have a discussion about the animal’s role in the world, whether it is in a neighborhood, a home, or a wild habitat.
4. Recognize undesirable behavior: Mistreatment of animals can be a warning sign of developing aggressive behavior. Deliberately harmful or frightening actions towards animals should be discouraged. While very young children are often not developmentally able to understand proper behavior towards animals, older children may need parental intervention if negative behavior persists. The Human Society has a helpful guide in dealing with negative behavior towards animals.

To learn more about how interaction with the natural world can increase empathy in children, check out this post.

The above photos were taken by Jeff Harding.

 

 

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