Pals in parenting

Including a pet in your family can help your child learn about responsibilities, unconditional love and so much more

Pet with kidPicture this: Keshav Maliah wakes up at 6 am to find that his four-day-old pet, Gus, a beautiful Labrador, has pooped on the expensive carpet. He tiptoes out of the room only to return with old newspapers and a broom. He spreads out the paper on the floor, pinches his nose shut with one hand, and hastily sweeps the dog poop on to the paper with the other. He quickly rolls up the mess [being careful not to soil his hands] and chucks it in the dustbin. Still sleepy, he goes back to bed till the alarm for school goes off. Mom comes in to wake him at 7 am and smells something funny but can’t figure out the source. On being questioned, Keshav [now fully awake] confides in his mom about the poop episode in hushed tones so his Dad wouldn’t find out. If he did, it could get Gus [and Keshav] into a lot of trouble for Dad had set some rules for the pet.

It is instances like these, which warm the heart. While adults indulge pets as they would a child, children see pets as their peers. It’s heartening to see how children connect with pets in a short span. Not only do they establish a bond with the pets but the vulnerability and helplessness of the pet brings out the child’s protective instinct. As this instinct deepens, it makes the child more aware of those around him, who need to be protected similarly. Caring for pets could even bring about a shift in their attitude towards an ailing grandparent or a younger sibling.

What it is about an animal that tugs at a child’s heart? What can they teach us? How can they enrich our lives? According to clinical psychologist Rohini Fernandes, who is also a certified practitioner of Animal-Assisted Therapy and founder of The Animal Angels, “The unconditional, non-judgemental and absolute love that they give to their caretakers can work wonders.”

She lays down some basic rules for pet owners-in-the-making:

1. Right age/time

Some of my friends who tried to appease their children with fish, turtles and the like realised that the charm wore off too soon. Children do not pay any attention apart from showing them off when they have company or when they need to be fed. It is interesting to note that even really small children want to “feed”—it is ingrained in the human psyche that to feed is to love and care. Rohini believes that pets should be brought into a family when the kids are old enough [eight years or more] to understand its needs and shoulder some responsibilities.

Snigdha Gupta wanted a pet since she was eight but had to settle for fish swimming around in a bowl since her father is allergic to certain animals. Not one to be satisfied with a pet she couldn’t touch or play with, she prepared an Excel sheet listing down different animals they could have as pets along with their eating habits, maintenance routines and potential allergic reactions. Her parents were impressed with her commitment and she graduated to being a caretaker of a pair of guinea pigs. I’m sure she had a dog on her mind but she is playing her cards well, for now!

2. One family

According to Rohini, the whole family needs to prep up to welcome a pet into their lives. If age-appropriate tasks are assigned to adults and children alike, it instills a sense of ownership and belonging towards the pet. A pet places so much faith in your ability to love and care for him that it makes one feel more confident of their abilities. It is this sense of confidence, which can really boost a child’s self-esteem. Simple tasks like feeding the pet, brushing his teeth or coat, taking the pet for a walk, changing the water [in case of fish], helping to train and discipline the pet can go a long way in making your little one a more responsible adult.

I was pleasantly surprised when Kuhu Jain [crazy about cats and stray dogs] revealed that even her children could read the expressions and recognise the sounds of their pet accurately. Like human beings, animals also seek a routine and find comfort in repeating tasks every day. So, if Ayaan [her son] were to keep their dog waiting while he watched the last 10 minutes of his favourite show on TV; he would invariably hear an audible whining, which was a signal that he really wanted to get out and pee! Children become sensitive to these signals and can pre-empt them. This helps to sensitise a child towards the needs of others.

3. Space

How would you feel caged up in a box all day, 24x7? Claustrophobic, right? Animals feel the same way. They like to walk, run and lie around doing nothing sometimes. When you choose a pet, please keep in mind that size does matter. Don’t bring a big pet into a small space because you want to show off that you can afford the most expensive breed. Bring a pet to enrich your life, not to massage your ego.

4. Touch

All human beings crave the comfort and warmth of a touch but in varying degrees. A child who shirks from physical contact may just melt with a pet in his arms. This constant physical companionship teaches a child to be more demonstrative of his affection towards those around him and helps to make him a secure, self-assured individual.

As children grow up, they deal with rapid changes—in their physical growth, appearance, academics, sports, extracurricular activities and behaviour. Every child deals with the associated pressures differently. While one may blossom, another may wilt. Having a pet who loves them despite their low grades, average physical appearance or mediocre skills can undo a lot of damage. A pet who greets them with enthusiasm and a generous lick every time they return home can teach them about being non-judgemental.

So go ahead and take the plunge, if you’ve been mulling over adopting a pet. As for me, I’ll be sitting on the fence till my boys fly the nest, leaving it empty for me to fill up again.

This is was first published in the August 2012 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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