Article

Children and Animals

Gail F. Melson

in Childhood Studies

ISBN: 9780199791231
Published online April 2013 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0136
Children and Animals

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The study of children’s development traditionally has focused on children’s relationships with other humans. However, in the last fifty years, there has been increased recognition that children live in a world of many different species and natural environments. Across cultures, pet ownership is common in households with children. US households with children younger than eighteen years of age are more likely than any other household type to contain resident animals. As a result, most US children are estimated to grow up with a household animal. Moreover, even urban children have daily exposure to many species of wild animals. Animals also play important symbolic roles for children in stories, toys, and now in virtual reality. In recent decades, scholars have begun to focus on other animals, plants, and natural settings, thereby expanding the focus of childhood studies beyond the traditional contexts of family, school, peer group, community, and culture. In addition, the theory of biophilia, suggesting that children would have an innate interest in animals and other life forms, further spurred research on the role of animals, particularly pets, in children’s development. A third influence stemmed from efforts to incorporate animals into therapeutic and educational interventions for children with special needs. Beginning with Boris Levinson’s influential book, Pet-Oriented Child Psychotherapy, first published in 1969 and updated in 1997 (see Levinson 1997, cited under Animals in Therapies and Education), animal-assisted therapy, animal-assisted education, and animal-assisted enrichment activities have proliferated. Although therapists and educators often report case studies of dramatic improvement in children’s functioning, systematic research on the efficacy of animal-assisted interventions has lagged behind practice. However, evidence is accumulating to document beneficial effects of animal-assisted therapies in improving physical, social, and emotional functioning among children with specific impairments, such as cerebral palsy, autism spectrum disorder, and conduct disorder. Along with this research, studies of typically developing children have found that children often develop strong emotional ties to their pets, making them important relationships in children’s lives. These bonds allow many children to derive emotional support in times of stress and may help develop empathy. Another line of research documents the role that caring for animals may play in developing children’s interest in and ability to nurture. Of particular significance is the finding that boys and girls do not differ in caring for animals, despite the emergence of gender differences in caring for other humans. These findings, together with the frequent presence of pets in the home, make pet care an important opportunity for boys to nurture others. Animals play a role in children’s cognitive development as well. Studies of naïve biology explore how children develop early understanding, before formal biology education, of what it means to be alive; how other species differ from humans; how life forms grow, reproduce, and die; and related issues. Exposure to living animals influences the development of these biological constructs. Finally, animals influence children’s moral development. As children are reasoning about the morality of human relationships, they are also reasoning about human treatment of animals and their environments. Although the major focus of research has been on the potential benefits of animals for children’s development, scholars of domestic violence and animal maltreatment have found that both tend to co-occur in families, posing risks to both child and animal welfare. These findings have led to collaborative efforts by child protective services and animal protection societies aimed at prevention, diagnosis, and treatment.

Article.  4682 words. 

Subjects: Development Studies

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