Pets can enhance family, and nation

Citizens were recently cautioned by our president for spending time and money on pets instead of people. It seems this fear is shared by other countries, including Japan where the birthrate is in decline and people are spending millions on designer pet-wear and treats. It’s a matter for debate and research what this worldwide trend for increasing pet-ownership may indicate about our human relationships and trans-cultural influences. In challenge to the view that it is a western practice detrimental to building a caring African society, this article draws attention to some similarities and differences between child and pet care and also some of the advantages that owning a pet has for family life.

It is possible to form a mutual, affectionate relationship with both animals and children.  Many pet owners say that this sense of companionship is rewarding and their animals are considered part of the family. Of course, your pets cannot help take care of you when you are old, but children can also shirk this chore when their parents age or remain dependent themselves due to disability. Both pets and young children are dependent on their caretakers to have their basic needs met. It takes far longer to potty train a toddler than it does to house-train a puppy, and unless you insist on teaching him new tricks your dog training will be complete by 18 months. Children need ongoing discipline and guidance well into their twenties and have a harder time not challenging your limits. Many adults use the same behavior modification strategies they would use for an animal and neglect to take the child’s feelings and ability to make cognitive connections into account. Dogs don’t tend to complain of unfairness or hold grudges after being humiliated in front of others.  The costs of daily food and medical interventions for both may be similar, but the cost of raising children increases steadily each year with additional needs like education and clothing. Children also have ongoing wants!  But your children continue to develop socially and intellectually their whole life providing richer rewards for the time and money invested in them.

There are health risks that need to be considered when choosing a pet, including injuries, parasites, transmittable illnesses and allergies. But keeping animals at home can also be beneficial for your children. Children who own a pet tend to be more active and spend less time in front of the television than their friends with no animals. Children who play actively with their pets and who contribute to their daily care are developing gross and fine motor muscle strength that benefits them in the classroom. A dog can provide the motivation for getting out there and being active contributing to family health and wellness.

A pet can provide companionship for an only child, and dogs can provide opportunities for making friends when they are taken for walks. Many children will confide in their pets when they are unable to communicate their mixed-up feelings as pets don’t judge your mistakes.  Children with developmental delays or challenges in forming social relationships can be taught to respond appropriately to the world around them through interaction with a family pet. All children can benefit from forming a relationship with a pet that is dependent on them for a clean environment as well as food and water. This helps children to grasp that there is a world outside of their own needs so that they become less selfish. Coaching in the care of household animals can provide parents with an opportunity for instilling a sense of responsibility in youngsters. Children often beg to have a pet, but become frustrated with the demands of caring for it once the initial excitement has worn off. This gives practical experience in living with the consequences of one’s choices and the life lesson that everything is balanced – anything good usually comes with a little challenge.  Dealing with the death of a pet can be a traumatic time but it provides opportunities for the family to discuss spiritual views about the meaning of life and practice at coping with sad feelings.

Your family pet can help to increase your child’s knowledge, vocabulary and sense of empathy. Young children learn the difference between living and non-living things and that all creatures have feelings and need care and respect. Encourage them to ask questions and listen to the answers when you visit the veterinarian, research information about a specific breed they are interested in owning, or use the pet as a topic for a school oral. As a child’s knowledge about their world increases, and their skills at caring for their pet grow so will their sense of self worth.

Pets can provide an early warning system for the physical and mental health of the family members. If your pet is gaining weight you may need to look at the family’s diet and exercise program. If your child is bullying his dog please talk to him about mixed-up feelings. If you are spending a fortune on designer labels for your pooch you may want to do some soul searching about your own life values and sense of identity.

Animal activists are against the keeping and breeding of domestic animals because so many animals suffer in this relationship with humankind. The truth is that millions of human children suffer abandonment, cruelty and neglect by family too. If the decision to have a baby (or keep a pet) is carefully considered and planned, and the power of the relationship is not misused the risk for this suffering is greatly reduced. For those hesitant to take on the responsibility of raising children a pet can provide a ‘test-run’ for the next serious upgrade. Keeping an animal as a pet need not be seen as alien to African family values if we expand on Nelson Mandela’s wise words and acknowledge that a society’s soul is measured in the way it treats its children AND its animals.

Written by Sheryl Maastrecht, Educational Psychologist in Private Practice. East London South Africa. January 2013
Published in the Saturday Dispatch 2013-01-27

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