If you’re not familiar with the Humphrey series, it’s about a hamster who solves the problems of his "classmates" in Room 26. Just get him out of the cage with the lock-that-doesn’t-lock and he’s off, solving such problems as ADHD, shyness, inattentive families. Sounds like a far-fetched concept, a social/emotionally-gifted hamster (and his frog best friend) solving children’s problems.
But Humphreys actually happen in real life. Animals, even hamsters or hens, can bring out the best in children. We can see it for ourselves when we watch our children read to their pets, comfort a pet in need, or be responsible for their daily needs.
Parents who help bring animals into their children’s lives know, or at least sense, these benefits. But many children don’t have the opportunity to have animals in their lives. This is sad. These kids are missing out on what could be a lifelong connection to animals and so much more that is important to a caring person.
Traits like responsibility and respect. When children care for animals, they are more likely to develop these traits. A group of researchers in Dublin took a closer look at how children might benefit from caring for animals. They asked questions of a group of 5 – 9-year-old children from a school of high socio-economic marginalization. The children cared for hens by cleaning, feeding, and collecting eggs. They could also spend their free time with the animals, engaging with them and building relationships through play, observation, and seeking comfort. Might we say- what a wonderful program.
The researchers found that the children became more responsible, empathetic, respectful of the natural world, cooperative, and even relaxed. Now, that’s quite an impressive list of benefits. Importantly, the children’s teachers noticed the same benefits, in addition to increased motivation, peer helping, and (our favorite) increased awareness and respect for nature.
It’s pretty impressive that hens, not even cuddly kittens or lock-picking hamsters, brought out such incredible social-emotional gains and nature awareness.
Early education expert David Sobel wrote that it is crucial for young children to experience empathy. "As children begin their forays into the natural world, we can encourage feelings for the creatures living there. Early childhood is characterized by a lack of differentiation between the self and the other," Sobel wrote. "Children feel implicitly drawn to baby animals; a child feels pain when someone else scrapes her knee. Rather than force separateness, we want to cultivate that sense of connectedness so that it can become the emotional foundation for the more abstract ecological concept that everything is connected to everything else."
Children with pets will feel more attached or connected, to animals. A study in Scotland of over one thousand children aged 7-12 (that’s a significant study) asked kids about their relationships with their pets. The researchers found that caring for pets fostered attachment between children and their pets as well as positive attitudes towards animals overall. The researchers write that such positive relationships that form between children and pets may lead to reduced aggression, a stronger sense of well-being, and improved quality of life for children. All excellent things for a child.
They also suggest that attachment between children and pets may promote more humane treatment of pets and other animals– and other humans. And if our goal is for a less violent, more compassionate future (and why wouldn’t it be?), fostering empathy for nonhuman creatures and the natural world is crucial. Numerous studies have shown a link between violence towards animals and people. In fact, 43 percent of school shooters had animal abuse in their background.
We need kids to care about and not fear nature in all of its shapes and sizes. Because if they don’t care now, they certainly won’t as adults. Children are the future advocate of conservation. Their knowledge about and feelings toward nature have the potential to influence conservation for many years to come.
Unsurprisingly, numerous studies have found a strong link between nature connection and pro-ecological behaviors, or a greater willingness to protect nature as well as to be more pro-social. Seen from another angle, researchers have found that a lack of empathy for nature impedes a person’s motivation to conserve the environment and enhance sustainability.
So, let’s add it up. Caring for animals is beneficial for kids. No, it’s essential. It allows kids to develop empathy, responsibility and awareness, and respect for nature. It also makes children happier and more social. But there’s something missing. Caring for animals who need our help is just the right thing to do. So many animals need homes, shelter, our care, our respect, and compassion. It’s time we reevaluate our relationship with nature, wildlife, animals. As the expression goes: You can be anything. Be kind.
Ways to Bring Animals Into a Child's Life (And Raise a More Compassionate Child)
It’s wonderful when we can offer a safe, compassionate home to an animal especially wIth so many animals in desperate need of a good family. If you do decide to give a companion animal like a cat or a dog a home, please adopt from a shelter. It is a dire situation for animals in shelters and on the street. There are simply not enough adoptive homes. In the US alone, millions of animals are killed each year for this reason. Make sure you adopt from a reputable shelter.
If a pet is not possible, other options exist. How about fostering an animal temporarily until it has its forever home? Or perhaps your family can volunteer to care for shelter animals. While your child may not be able to have direct contact with many animals, they could help with cleaning cages, feeding, or possibly walking friendly dogs or playing with kittens or puppies. It’s fulfilling to be part of the efforts to make life more comfortable for unadopted animals.
Kids can often volunteer to help take care of farm animals on small humane farms or sanctuaries. Find a farm that accepts volunteers and provides a community service. Farms provide food or fairy for food-insecure people or therapy animals for mental health therapy. The farm might love your family’s help cleaning stalls, feeding, and watering—all excellent ways for a child to develop a sense of responsibility and experience the love of caring for an animal that depends on a human for survival.
While working with wildlife requires licensing and lots of prior knowledge for everyone’s safety, volunteering with a local wildlife rehabilitator is an excellent way for a child to learn about the care wild critters need and deserve. Rehabbers may need help organizing supplies, cleaning, or perhaps making flyers for donations. Perhaps a sanctuary accepts volunteers for clean-up days or pollinator plantings.
Stacey Cobb runs Nature’s Nurse Wildlife Rehabilitation in Massachusetts. Stacey is passionate about wildlife and our responsibility to help wildlife in need. She writes on the Nature Nurse website, “I think it’s important that we learn to coexist with wildlife. Show them kindness and compassion, since every day their homes are destroyed by humans. Every animal I’ve rehabilitated has a different personality. They feel pain, suffer and grieve, just like humans do. Please be kind.”
If it’s accessible to a child, horseback riding is an excellent way to help develop empathy as it requires effective communication and cooperation with a nonverbal partner. Horses are wonderful animals to build a connection with. They sense our emotions and are quite sensitive themselves. Riding also strengthens muscles, improves posture, balance, and coordination, and has been shown to lower stress levels. And of course, caring for a horse develops responsibility, patience, and self-discipline.