Your humble narrator finds himself sick with a cold, so here's a post from the archives.
There is considerable research on how children interact with other children and with adults, and how child development can be influenced by those interactions. But research on children's interactions with non-human animals seem to be limited. Given how ubiquitous pets are in the homes of children (at least, in WEIRD cultures), it is somewhat surprising that there hasn't been more work on the way pet ownership might affect child development.
According to the US Humane Society:
- There are approximately 77.5 million owned dogs in the United States
- Thirty-nine percent of U.S. households own at least one dog
- Most owners (67 percent) own one dog
- Twenty-four percent of owners own two dogs
- Nine percent of owners own three or more dogs
- On average, dog owners spent $225 on veterinary visits (vaccine, well visits) annually
- There are approximately 93.6 million owned cats in the United States
- Thirty-three percent of U.S. households (or 38.2 million) own at least one cat
- Fifty-six percent of owners own more than one cat
- On average, owners have two cats (2.45)
- Cat owners spent an average of $203 on routine veterinary visits
Developmental scientist Gail F. Melson noted this paucity in research in a 2003 review paper in The American Behavioral Scientist. Melson points out that most parents report that they acquired their family pets "for the children," and given the ubiquity of child-pet bonding and interaction, she suggests that it is an important area for child development research to investigate. She goes through several topic areas in child development and examines what has been learned, or could be learned, by investigating human-animal bonding.
Perceptual and Cognitive Development
Melson starts with Eleanor Gibson's work on perceptual development, and in particular, her theory of perceptual affordances - that is, infants extract knowledge from the world by interacting with the world; by looking at, hearing, feelings, tasting, and acting on objects, and discovering what objects "afford" - the "what can I do with this" for each object.
Babies can readily differentiate pet dogs and cats from "life-like" battery-operated toy dogs and cats. Babies will smile at, hold, follow, and make sounds in response to the live animals more than in response to the toys. In one study, 9 month olds were more interested in a live rabbit than an adult female stranger or a wooden turtle. A 1989 study of 2- to 6-year-olds with animals in their classrooms showed that children ignored realistic stuffed animals (80% never looked at them), but that live animals - especially dogs and birds - captured the attention of the children. Seventy-four percent touched the dog, 21% kissed the dog, and more than 66% talked to the bird.
Living with pets seems to stimulate children's learning about basic biology. In one study, Japanese researchers showed that kindergarteners who had cared for pet goldfish better understood unobservable biological traits of their goldfish, and gave more accurate answers to questions like "does a goldfish have a heart?" They also showed better reasoning about other species by using analogies: one child inferred that a baby frog "will grow bigger, much as the goldfish got bigger."
Though there haven't been any studies, Melson hypothesizes that caring for animals may also give children more elaborated and accurate ideas about life and death.
Finally, Melson points out that animals present good learning opportunities for the simple reason that children learn and retain more when they are emotionally invested, and that children's learning is optimized when it occurs within the context of meaningful relationships. There is no reason that the only meaningful relationships for young children should be human relationships.
Social and Emotional Development
When asked to name the 10 most important individuals in their lives, 7- and 10-year-olds on average included 2 pets. Melson offers two important functions of companion animals that might support social/emotional development.
The first is social support. Dozens, if not hundreds, of studies demonstrate that lack of human social support is a risk factor for physical and psychological problems, especially for children, and there is evidence that pet-owning children derive such emotional support from their pets. A 1985 study of 7- and 10-year-olds in California showed that pet owners were equally likely to talk to their pets about sad, angry, happy, and secret experiences as with their human siblings. Seventy-five percent of Michigan 10- to 14-year-olds reported that when upset, they turned to their pets. Forty-two percent of Indiana 5-year-olds spontaneously mentioned a pet when asked "who do you turn to when you are feeling sad, angry, happy, or wanting to share a secret?" Even more interesting: when comparing parents, friends, and pets, elementary school children considered their relationships with their pets as most likely to last "no matter what" and "even if you get mad at each other." Among pet-owning children, those who did turn to their pets for support were rated by parents as less anxious and withdrawn than those who owned pets, but did not seek such social support from them.
The second is nurturance. Since pets are dependent on human care, pets provide children with the opportunity to learn about how to care for another being. Further, Melson argues that the development of nurturance underlies future effective parenting, non-family childcare, and caregiving for the elderly, sick, and disabled.
One study of 5-6 year olds showed that those more attached to their pets showed greater empathy towards peers. Another study of 7 and 10 year olds showed that those who reported more "intimate talks" with their pets, also reported more empathy.
It is important to note that most of these studies are correlational, and it is therefore difficult to make any causal claims. For example, the association between pet-caring and empathy identified may be due to the possibility that parents obtain pets for children who are already empathic. Or, empathic children may be better at bonding with animals.
I agree that more research needs to be done on child-animal relationships, particularly within the context of the family. Many children (and adults) consider their pets as family members. Some children consider their pets as though they were younger siblings, peers, or even as security-providing attachment figures. One study suggested that both adults and children within a family context may deflect their emotional responses onto their pets (a mother is angry at her children, but yells at the dog instead), or routing communication to their pets meant for other family members (a father talks to the cat intending his son to overhear). It would be interesting to know how pets alter and are altered by the dynamics of the family system.
Melson, G. (2003). Child Development and the Human-Companion Animal Bond American Behavioral Scientist, 47 (1), 31-39 DOI: 10.1177/0002764203255210