For animal lovers, any lesson is easier to learn with a creature nearby. This is especially true of lessons in empathy and compassion.
At my house, we talk a lot about embracing people's differences. We practice recognizing what others might be feeling – for example, we're getting good at spotting frustration disguised as anger. We encourage each other to notice the needs of those around us by asking questions like "Who have you helped today?" on a regular basis.
Each of these lessons – celebrating differences, understanding emotions, recognizing needs – is a fundamental part of raising a compassionate, empowered kid.
Each of these lessons can be taught more quickly, more instinctively through creature care.
Research continues to demonstrate that spending time with creatures reduces stress and may even boost the immune system, as demonstrated in a recent study on people with therapy dogs. In fact, the Center for Disease Control dedicates an entire section of its website to the health benefits of pet ownership.
New studies also confirm that kids who are encouraged to have a relationship with a pet, including the responsibilities that go along with pet ownership, grow into adults with stronger relationships, a great deal of compassion, and a commitment to the humane treatment of animals.
While not every family is destined for pet ownership, every family can harness the power of creature-love to inspire compassion and encourage a bond with the animal kingdom. We've gathered our favorite resources to get you started.
6 Animal-Loving Lessons for Big-Hearted Families.
1. Help with Pet Chores
Whether the pet in question is a hermit crab or a Saint Bernard, or anything in between, caring for creatures has a magical impact. Encourage your child to help meet the needs of their own pet, or get to know your neighbor's creatures by offering to pet sit from time to time. If you're worried about allergies, check out Parents Magazine's article "Finding the Best Pets for Kids with Allergies."
Whenever you are caring for a pet, help your child notice a few important details:
- What are this pet's basic needs?
- How do they communicate their emotions to us?
- How are they different from us, and how are they the same?
2. Play Pretend
Very young children can "practice" sharing compassion with animals while they play. Here are some fun ideas for at-home play time:
Care for Your Stuffies: Teach little ones all about pet care with the power of make-believe and a well-loved stuffed animal. Don't forget to include a visit to the vet. Encourage kids to talk about how their "pet" is feeling and what their "pet" needs.
Visit a Virtual Zoo: Pack up your dolls and take a tour of your living room as a would-be zoo, using the San Diego Zoo live cams. Encourage kids to talk about how the animals are cared for in the zoo.
3. Try a Family Service Project
Browse our gallery at the end of this post or set aside an hour for our newest family project: Advocate for Animals.
In this project, you'll research endangered animals in your area, draw an animal you care about along with its greatest threat, then write a letter to your representatives asking them to help protect a creature at risk of extinction. This project teach kids about endangered animals, and it is a fun exercise in active citizenship.
4. Support the Humane Society
Even if you don't currently own a pet, you can make the difference in the lives of animals in your area. Here are just a couple of the inspiring opportunities the Humane Society offers.
Register to be a Rescue Reader. This unique program connects kids who love animals and want to practice their reading skills, with creatures who need some attention as they wait for their forever home.
5. Get outside
You don't have to own a pet to be enthralled with the animal kingdom. Take a hike. Sign up for a bird watching class. Spend time at a wild space near you, and pay attention to the creatures you see along the way.
6. Read Together
While reading about animals is not at all the same as caring for them, Doing Good Together™ believes a good book can make an idea come alive for a child in the most unexpected ways.
My personal favorite is How to Heal a Broken Wing by Bob Graham. In his modern fable, everyone passes by the injured pigeon lying on the ground – except Will. He takes the bird home so that he and his mom can nurse him back to health and get him back in the sky. This book will help kids understand the importance of "noticing" the needs around them.
I'm also super excited about Beloved Dog by Maira Kalman. In this beautiful book, renowned artist Maira Kalman brings us the perfect combination of gorgeous illustrations and heart-opening text as a tribute to the dogs she's loved, known, and even dogs she's admired in literature.
Young people are naturally fascinated by and drawn to animals. Let's encourage this natural instinct and empower them to share kindness with and on behalf of the animal kingdom.
Browse our collection of resources to Care for Animals.
Join our Big-Hearted Families Membership Circle!
We'll help you keep kindness on your family calendar all year long.
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The recommendations we offer are based solely on our mission to empower parents to raise children who care and contribute.