Adopting a companion animal provides a fertile opportunity to teach important values to children. The decision to devote your resources and care to an animal in need sends a very clear message about the identity of a family and its underlying values. It is a great time to explore who you are as a family and what you stand for. It is through this process that a child learns things like, “We are a family with an important choice to make, and we are going to use the power of this choice to save a life.” This teaches kids about personal responsibility and their impact on the greater good as they make choices in life. Children need to feel they can impact their world. We need to give them opportunities to do so in positive, pro-social ways. Adopting and caring for an animal can plant the seeds for that ethic.
Conducting a family meeting to determine if you can meet an animal’s needs, is a good place to start. You should explore issues such as whether a landlord permits animals, how much exercise the animal needs, how to provide for medical care, who will be responsible for feeding, training and walks, who will care for the animal on vacations, whether you have imminent plans to move, etc. Such a conversation conveys the importance of planning for the long term Navigating potential obstacles and committing to get through them– for better or worse– is an important step in conveying to your children, the inherent value of this new family member’s life and well-being.
Answering these initial questions will also help determine what sort of animal would be a good match for your family. Don’t hesitate to enroll the help of a local rescue group in making this decision.
The decision around which animal companion to add to a family can provide for fruitful debates about your family’s values. Perhaps yours is a family who is willing to provide a home to an older pet who has found himself in a shelter due to a move. Or perhaps you are willing to provide for a cat who has lost an eye or even a limb. This conveys that you see past age and physical ‘limitations’ and can appreciate another being’s inherent worth. This teaches about acceptance and offers children a chance to witness the inspiring resilience in all animals.
Perhaps your family is willing to provide a home for a pit bull or other breed disadvantaged by misconceptions and negative stereotypes. This teaches kids about pre-conceptions and difference. It also encourages them to learn for themselves and not buy into a public perception that may be biased or misinformed.
Finally, for kids who are adopted themselves, adopting a pet provides an opportunity to talk about their feelings while also confirming a family’s positive regard for others in need. Similarly, for a child who is hearing impaired, or who has a condition such as diabetes, adopting an animal with a similar condition (provided the resources exist to properly manage it)can be therapeutic and enriching for all involved.
There is no limit to the great lessons that you can teach when you opt to adopt. It benefits all involved and lives on in the growing minds of the children who participate. The ripple effect of this family activity will undoubtedly foster compassion for generations to come!
Dr. Pia Salk
Pia blogs often at The Daily Wag on MarthaStewart.com, the home of episodes from Francesca and Sharkey – Martha Stewart’s two dogs. Dr. Pia Salk is a psychologist, animal welfare advocate, and expert on the human-animal bond. Pia frequently highlights the important role that animals play in our lives and how our societal treatment of animals conveys important messages to our youth. In her own work, Pia often credits the animals as being “the real therapists.”
Dog & child photo courtesy of http://www.sxc.hu/photo/783864