A common question parents of young children ask themselves is, “How can I teach my toddler to be nice to animals” or “How can I teach my child empathy?”
Our mission is to promote the humane treatment of animals through education, training, and outreach. We know that it starts by teaching children at a very young age, and over time they develop skills of empathy and respect.
We’ve developed some ways to help build a foundation of respect for all living beings, especially animals below:
1. Lead by Example. Show Your Kids How to Respect and Care for Animals Firsthand
More than 67% of US households have at least one pet. It’s a great place to start if you have pets at home. If you don’t, it’s even more important that when you are around animals you lead by example and show your children that you have empathy and respect for animals. If there are no animals in the home, make sure that when you’re at a park or a public place and come across someone with a pet, you use the opportunity to show your child the best way to interact firsthand.
Teaching children that animals have basic needs like food, water, shelter, and exercise is a great place to start.
2. Read Books About Animals
If you don’t have pets at home, you can start by reading books that are written to help children understand that pets have needs, feelings, and emotions just like they do. If there are pets in the home, a great way for your child to spend time with the animal is to get these books and listen to you read with them. Not only can reading be fun, but studies show that reading to and/or with your children can create a special bond and can improve focus.
We have partnered with authors and many communities across Texas to ensure that school libraries have humane books with these goals in mind… You can see the full list of books in our Humane Library by clicking here:
3. Make a Stuffed Animal a Pretend Pet
An easy learning technique is to use one or a few of the child’s favorite stuffed animals as a way to show how to treat real animals. Just as a child might have a tea party with some stuffed friends, you can use that time to teach what they should or should not do with them. These can be simple things such as letting them feed the stuffed dog or not leave the stuffed cat outside in the rain while everyone else is inside having tea. The idea is simple but can have a serious effect on the children and their future pets.
4. Positive Reinforcement & Extra Praise
When owning a pet, training and establishing boundaries are important in the home. It is good to have the child observe the responsibility of owning and caring for the animal, and when they start to see the good that comes from it. Go the extra mile to make sure to praise your pets for behaving well and praise your child for treating the pet appropriately.
Teach the child that treating the pet well will get them positive reinforcement and even rewards.
5. Teach Your Child How to Handle a Misbehaving Pet
Ultimately everyone’s pet will act up at one time or another, so how should you handle that with a kid around? First, show the child what the animal did and make it clear that it was wrong or outside of the previously established boundaries. Secondly, demonstrate and include your child in the disciplinary process. Help your child understand that it is important to follow the rules of the household for everyone, even animals, to live happily. Animals learn best through repetition, and patience – and getting your pets on the same page may not exactly be a one step process.
Your child and their classmates can also learn more about proper care for animals by requesting a school visit from a trained speaker from THN or with our Critter Camps: https://texashumanenetwork.org/critter-camps/
6. Make Sure There’s a Safe Space for Your Pet
Maintaining and managing both children and pets can be a lot for a household. A great way to ease this time is to give your pet a safe space in the home, whether that be a large crate for them to tuck themselves into or something such as a baby gate to separate them from the rest of the house. It is important for your pet to have time in a safe space to not become overwhelmed or stressed.
7. Keep Learning and Building Compassion Together
This is a great place to start, and, of course, teaching children to care for and respect animals and other people doesn’t end here. This is a quick list to get you started at home and continue everywhere you go. Teaching this strong foundation of respect and empathy will carry over into other aspects of your child’s life, including school, friends, family, and even strangers. Help your kids take these steps one at a time to really create a lasting impact on the future of your family and your pet’s future, and the future generations of Texans.