A surprising reason our kids’ pets are really, really good for them
We make pets part of the family for many different reasons—fun, companionship, exercise, to teach responsibility. Now add a surprising new benefit for our kids: a strong and positive influence on development that may be as strong as that of siblings.
Kids REALLY see pets as part of the family.
It’s a relationship that brings them even more satisfaction than having a brother or sister, new research shows.
They get along better with these furry sibs too.
(Maybe no surprise on that last part.)
The new insights into the positive influence of the child-pet bond come from a long-term study of children’s social development at the University of Cambridge. Researchers in the Centre for Family Research there have been following a group of kids since age 2. Now the kids are 12, deep in the preteen drama years, as they pull away from parents into outside attachments. Conveniently, just over three-quarters of the families in the study had pets, similar to the national averages for households with kids in both the U.K. and the U.S.
A tighter bond?
The study, published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, reports that:
- Both boys and girls got more satisfaction from their pets than their siblings.
- Both boys and girls say they fight less with their pets than their siblings.
- Dogs seem to bring kids the lowest levels of conflict and the greatest satisfaction and companionship. Just under half the kids in the study had dogs. Just over half had a pet of another species—27 cats, 4 rabbits, 4 guinea pigs, 4 hamsters, 4 fish, 1 chicken, and 2 that were unspecified.
- Girls confided in pets more, and argued with them more, than boys did. Possible reason: Adolescent girls are generally more communicative than boys.
“The fact that pets can’t understand or talk back may be a benefit, as it means they’re completely non-judgmental.” says Matt Cassels, the study’s lead author and a PhD candidate in developmental psychiatry.
Unlike unburdening to, say, a journal—which is also nonjudgy and therapeutic—a pet has the added benefit of being empathetic, he notes.
And unlike unburdening to, say, an older brother, Fido isn’t going to push you away and call you a doofus.
Why it matters that man’s best friend is kids’ best friend:
Though there’s been a ton of research about the “human-animal bond,” surprisingly little has been done on how kids feel about their pets relative to how they feel about other family members, says Cassels. But given how close kids feel to their pets, these insights can provide an important window to kids’ social and emotional development, he says.
Other data from the study shows that kids who have a strong relationship with a pet also seem to show more pro-social behaviors—helping, sharing, cooperating—than their peers. The support of pets is especially important to kids in times of adversity such as illness, parental divorce, or grieving.
So maybe all that nagging over filling the water dish is worth it…
Cassels himself had at least a dozen pets while growing up in Canada—”one guinea pig, two hamsters, several fish, one budgie (though short-lived), a rabbit, three dogs, and two ponies,” he told me. (“Quite the menagerie, really.”) But his work shows that just one is all it takes to help our kids grow up kinder, calmer, and more secure.
—Content chief Paula Spencer Scott is a mom of 4 and step-mom of 2—and the author or co-author of more than a dozen books about parenting, health, and eldercare, including Bright From the Start; The Happiest Toddler on the Block; Like Mother, Like Daughter; and Surviving Alzheimer’s.
Photo: Barney Moss/Flickr