More than Just a Cute Face: What Interacting with Animals Can Do for Kids

More than Just a Cute Face: What Interacting with Animals Can Do for Kids

It amazes me how many of my childhood memories – and consequently the “when I was a little girl” stories I tell – center around animals. Whether it was my Paw-Paw’s gentle giant brahma bull, Bud, who let us ride him or my mom’s Australian shepherd who carried around 4 X 4 posts for fun, experiences with animals etched themselves into my long term memory in a way other experiences (looking at you, Disney trips) did not.

E. Wilson’s “biophilia hypothesis” explains the idea that humans, as part of nature, have an affinity for other living things–a need for them, in fact. In her book Connecting Animals and Children, P. Selly writes about how special it is that children value animals simply because they are other living creatures rather than because of what they offer humans. While each child’s experience with animals is shaped by their own social and cultural environment, most children open their hearts to animals and benefit in a variety of ways from nurturing a connection with other living things. For example, animals provide a rainbow of sensory input, from their colors and markings to their unique sounds and smells to their varied textures, whether fur, feather, or scale. They engage children in unpredictable delight, for, unlike a toy or doll, animals have agency; we can’t ever fully know what they might do next and why–and it’s fascinating!

Children are also able to provide attuned caregiving to animals. They can learn to read cues from animals and take responsibility for meeting their needs. Animal care-giving can provide an excellent foundation for concepts like consent and communication. When children consistently provide care, they often experience reciprocal connection with their animal friends and learn, from the resulting oxytocin release, that caring for others can be its own reward.

Animals provide children with opportunities for unguarded communication; they offer a neutral listening buddy who doesn’t lecture or overreact–basically a living, breathing “calm-down corner.” Finally, animals offer pathways toward empathic perspectives. Relationships with animals provide space for the development of a “theory of mind” as we’re always guessing at what an animal may be “thinking” and feeling.

Even if the worst should happen–a case of animal loss–the experience provides invaluable opportunities to talk about death, how it makes people feel, and what it means to recover emotionally by holding memories dear. These experiences, though difficult, build children’s emotional intelligence and resiliency.

Putting children and animals together requires preparation and education. There are real risks involved to both parties. Procedures like hand-washing before and after handling animals, their food, or their care-giving supplies must be established, practiced, and supervised. Children need clear instruction and opportunities to practice interacting with animals under supervision in order to be safe and confident, but with consistent reinforcement and gentle guidance, children and animals can be quite safe and very happy in one another’s company.

Doing the work to make it safe for children to interact with animals is well worth the time and effort. I’m thankful for what was perhaps the most significant interaction I had with an animal in my childhood: Lady the Quarter horse.

Lady was a $30,000 horse–and this was nearly forty years ago. I rode her weekly at Ms. Poole’s riding school just off Texas Hwy 37 between the ages of eight and eleven. Before Ms. Poole let me ride, she required me to put Lady through her paces in the corral with the use of only my eight-year-old body and voice. No saddle. No bridle. No lead rope. No whip. Now, Lady was a magnificent creature; she could not be taken for a fool. She knew I was terrified and ignored me entirely for weeks. I had to find the courage to lead her through connection, concentration, and commitment. It is not an overstatement to say that the confidence I have leveraged to leave home for college, to lead classrooms over the past twenty years, to travel the world, to commit to a life partner, and to bring three children into this uncertain world has its roots in Ms. Poole’s hot, dusty lunging pen.

Leading a half ton animal through my eight-year-old body introduced me to my own grit. I see the same seeds planted in children when they learn to pick up chicks, to get a bunny to settle into some snuggling, to hold on to a gecko, or to get a goat to hold still for a brushing. In those moments, kids find out–all on their own–what all our “good jobs” and “you can do its” never quite manage to say. Kids learn for sure that they can do hard, scary things when they decide to. Their sense of their own grittiness is born.