If you're a parent, the idea of adding the care and feeding of an animal to your responsibilities might feel like too much work. But having a dog, cat, bunny, hamster or other animal as a part of the family benefits kids in real ways. Studies have shown that kids who have pets do better — especially in the area of Emotional Intelligence (EQ), which has been linked to early academic success, even more so than the traditional measure of intelligence, IQ.
Even better news is that unlike IQ, which is thought by most experts to be unchangeable (you can't really change your IQ by studying), EQ can improve over time with practice. Animal friends can help kids do that by cultivating the very skills that lead to better Emotional Intelligence. (And pooches and kitties aren't even trying; it just comes naturally.)
The following EQ skills are developed by children with pets:
1. Compassion: Researchers Nienke Endenburg and Ben Baarda did an overview of the scientific literature in The Waltham Book of Human-Animal Interaction. "If there are pets in the house, parents and children frequently share in taking care of the pet, which suggests that youngsters learn at an early age how to care for and nurture a dependent animal," they wrote. Even very young children can contribute to the care and feeding of a pet — a 3-year-old can take a bowl of food and set it on the floor for a cat, and at the same age, a child can be taught to stroke an animal nicely, maybe using the back of the hand so they don't grab the animal. Supervising kids during the first few interactions is a teaching moment. Later, once they have learned the ropes, their memory and understanding of a life outside themselves will be stimulated each time they interact with the animals. Older kids can be responsible for walking a dog or playing with it in the yard, cleaning out a cat's litter box, or taking veggie scraps from dinner to a rabbit or hamster. A study of 3- to 6-year-olds found that kids with pets had more empathy towards other animals and human beings, while another study found that even having an animal in a classroom made fourth-graders more compassionate.
2. Self-esteem: Caring for pets also builds self-esteem because being assigned tasks (like filling the dog's water bowl) gives a child a sense of accomplishment and helps him feel independent and competent. Pets can be especially good for children who have very low self-esteem: "[A researcher] found that children's self-esteem scores increased significantly over a nine-month period of keeping pets in their school classroom. In particular, it was children with originally low self-esteem scores who showed the greatest improvements," write Endenburg and Baarda.
3. Cognitive development: Kids with pets play with them, talk to them, and even read to them (reading to pets is more common than you'd think), and the data backs up the idea that this additional low-stress communication benefits verbal development in the youngest kids. "Pet ownership might facilitate language acquisition and enhance verbal skills in children. This would occur as a result of the pet functioning both as a patient recipient of the young child's babble and as an attractive verbal stimulus, eliciting communication from the child in the form of praise, orders, encouragement and punishment."
4. Stress reduction: In surveys of kids who are asked about who they would go to with a problem, children regularly mentioned pets, indicating that for many, animals can provide emotional support and an additional way to mitigate negative emotions when they are feeling stressed. "The 'social' support given by pets has some advantages compared to the social support given by humans. Pets can make people feel unconditionally accepted, whereas fellow humans will judge and may criticize," write Endenburg and Baarda. Animals are great listeners and are non-judgmental — if a kid does badly on a test or angers their parents, an animal will still provide loving support.
5. Understanding the cycle of life: Talking about birth and death with kids can be hard for parents. Learning about them via the lives of animals can be an easier way for both parties to learn about these basics of life. While experiencing the death of a pet can be difficult and painful, it can also be an important learning experience. "... the way in which their parents and others near to them deal with the situation will have an influence on how children cope with death in general throughout their lives. It is important for parents to discuss their feelings of sadness openly and to share the associated feelings with the child. Parents have to show that it is all right to have such feelings. Learning to cope with sad feelings, for instance when a pet dies or is euthanized, is important and parents have to help their children with it," write Endenburg and Baarda.
In addition, experiencing or talking about the other side of death — birth — can be a simple and age-appropriate way to begin the discussion about sex.
Of course all of the above positive benefits depend on the structure of the family, the number of siblings or other non-parental adults around, and of course a child's own genetic tendencies, but only children and those with few siblings (or the youngest of a group) often become more pet-oriented.
If any of the above concepts sound familiar to adult readers, that's because some of the same benefits are relevant for grown-ups too, including the social support and stress reduction.