Social consciousness, or the awareness of society, is central to the experience of being human. In order to participate as contributing members of the community and broader society, children need to learn to not only be responsible for themselves, but also for other living things. This social responsibility involves a deep awareness of our interdependence and interconnectedness with the entire web of life: the human, animal and natural world (Warren, 2000).
Domains of Social Consciousness
Social responsibility entails behaving responsibly in three broad areas:
1. The people around us
2. The environment around us
3. Animal welfare
The Importance of Concern for Animal Welfare
This article focuses on promoting a concern for animal welfare in children. This concern involves an understanding of animal life and our relationships with animals, including factors such as how they are kept as pets, how animals are killed for food, how they are used for scientific research, and how human activities affect the survival of endangered species (Wikipedia).
Every creature contributes to the biodiversity and ecological wellbeing of the earth community, and there is a need to grow sensitivity and develop a sense of responsibility for creatures as well.
Children should be exposed to these issues, experience how animals have a capacity to bring richness to human lives, and encouraged to develop a duty of care towards animals, which entails taking steps to ensure that the needs of animals are met, and that animals do not suffer.
Instilling positive values towards animals is important not just for animal welfare but for child wellbeing as well. Studies suggest that direct interaction with animals help promote empathy development and pro-social behaviours in children (Ascione & Weber, 1996; George, 1999).
Firstly, by developing a strong bond with an animal, children are likely to demonstrate increased levels of animal-directed empathy. Moreover, caretaking for animals is a skill that can be transferred to people, suggesting that animal-directed empathy will generalise to human-directed empathy.
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), children who learn to care for animals with patience and kindness receive invaluable training in learning to treat people the same way. As such, establishing positive relationships with pets can aid in the development of trusting relationships with other human beings.
Additionally, the child-animal relationship has unique benefits. As compared to children’s relationships with humans, the child-animal bond provides an opportunity for emotional investment and expression that is free from negative evaluation and does not subject the child to rejection (Fawcett & Gullone, 2001).
Caring for animal companions also appears to foster self-esteem in pre-school and primary-school aged children. Self-esteem requires children to learn self-discipline and responsibility, work with and get along with others, and trust others (George, 1999).
Through the proper care and handling of their pets, children can learn to respect all beings, which in turn can teach a child to understand that mutual respect underpins all relationships (George, 1999; Melson, 1990).
Pets also help children learn to express and share their feelings in a healthy manner. According to AACAP, children feel secure and safe revealing their secrets to their pets, similar to how they do with their stuffed toys. This process of sharing helps children feel listened to and validated, and allows them to practise sharing private stories with other people.
Tips for Dads
Here are some strategies for fathers to teach children kindness and respect toward animals.
Direct physical contact with animals
Visit a Petting Zoo. Most petting zoos are clean and well-run, and provide an excellent, hands-on experience for children to learn about animals. Direct contact with nature appears to provide an irreplaceable element of healthy childhood growth and development.
Psychologist Rachel Sebba emphasizes that the natural world is extraordinarily diverse and variable, thus, exerting an especially stimulating impact on a child’s senses of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste.
Teach Your Child to Care for a Pet. If your child does not have any allergies, consider letting him or her keep a pet. Make sure your child is able to make an informed decision, and knows that he or she is responsible for their pet, and do not end up assuming most of the caring duties yourself. Also, do some research first on the appropriate pet for your child, based on his or her personality type and age group.
Exposure to Lessons about Animal Welfare and Behaviour
Read and discuss animal welfare with your child. The topic provides a lot of thought-provoking ideas on what to think, feel and do about the needs of animals.
Volunteer together at an animal shelter. The shelter environment provides a good learning experience about making a difference in the lives of animals. Discuss with your child the benefits of helping abandoned or lost animals find a home, rather than having them live on the street where they will not get any water or any food. You may also encourage your child to adopt a pet from the shelter rather than buy one from a pet store.
Let your child keep a virtual pet. Virtual pets are a good trial experience for children to care for an animal. Keeping a real pet might bear negative consequences if your child forgets to handle some important tasks. On the other hand, with a virtual pet, no animal will suffer when your child forgets to “feed” it dinner.
Help make the connection between animal products and animals. Discuss with your children the origins of the meat you and your family eat, which will help them make informed choices as future consumers.. Explain what kind of animal the meat comes from, highlighting how animals are raised in farms, how they are treated and fed. Where possible, encourage consumption of products such as humanely-treated, grass-fed beef and free-range eggs at home.
Children deserve to learn important lessons from their dads and acquire important social capacities to function in the larger society. Teaching your children to care and display concern for animals engenders a sense of achievement, nurturing capacities, cooperation and responsibility, all of which contribute to the building of key traits of empathy and compassion (George, 1999).
Ascione, F. R., & Weber, C. V. (1996). Children’s attitudes about the humane treatment of animals and empathy: One-year follow-up of a school-based intervention. Anthrozoos, 9, 188-195.
George, H. (1999). The role of animals in the emotional and moral development of children. In F. R. Ascione, & P. Arkow (Eds.), Child abuse, domestic violence, and animal abuse: Linking the circles of compassion for prevention and intervention (pp. 380-392). Indiana: Purdue University Press.
Fawcett, N. R., & Gullone, E. (2001). Cute and cuddly and whole lot more? A call for empirical investigation into the therapeutic benefits of human-animal interactions for children. Behaviour Change, 18, 124-133.
Melson, G. F. (1990). Fostering inter-connectedness with animals and nature: The developmental benefits for children. People, Animals, Environment, Fall, 15-17. Warren, Karen J. (2000). Ecofeminist Philosophy: A Western Perspective on What It Is and Why It Matters, Rowman & Littlefield: Maryland
About the Author: The Dads for Life Resource Team comprises local content writers and experts, including psychologists, counsellors, educators and social service professionals, dedicated to developing useful resources for dads.
First published on 31-12-2012