Toddlers are a curious bunch. With the emerging knowledge that they aren’t connected to mom at the hip, this age group is prone to wandering off in order to explore the moment you turn your back, which is perhaps why you see so many frantic parents running through grocery stores and malls looking for their wayward tots (that’s right, you’re not the only one that lost your toddler in public). And of course, they’re walking, talking, and soaking up information about the world around them at the speed of light, which makes this time in life a perfect one to introduce your kids to pets. That said, you need to make sure that you teach them how to interact with animals in an appropriate manner so that neither your pets nor your children end up hurt. Encouraging toddlers to play nice with animals is not necessarily an easy undertaking, but it can and must be done if you want to have pets as part of your family. Here’s how to accomplish your task.
While your kids are still a bit too young to take them to training sessions with your animals, you can start teaching them how to interact with pets in a number of ways. The first and most important strategy is to lead by example. During the formative years, kids are going to look to you as their main source of behavioral training. They will emulate your language, your movements, and the ways in which you behave. So when you yell at the dog and drag it around by the collar, your kids are going to do exactly the same thing. And if you didn’t know this behavior was abusive, watching your kids mistreat your pets can be just the reality check you need to change your own bad habits. The things you teach your kids now will stick with them for life. Heck, you probably learned how to interact with animals by watching your own parents. So take a step back, assess your patterns of behavior, and make a change. Everyone in your household, including your kids, your pets, and even you, will benefit in the process.
Next you need to think about how you can make your children feel empathy towards the animals in your household. They might assume that there’s no difference between their stuffed animals and the living creatures you bring home from the pound or the pet store. But you need to disabuse them of this notion. Living animals are not toys. They can be hurt through mistreatment or abuse, whether your kids have any notion of what they’re doing or not. And when children pull tails and ears or grab a pet by the collar, the risk for collateral damage is high, which is to say, animals that feel threatened are bound to react and your kids could be hurt in the process.
The best way to teach kids empathy towards animals is to ask how they might feel if placed in their pet’s position. How would they like to have somebody pulling their ears, pushing them around, or yelling in their face? They wouldn’t. If this tactic doesn’t do the trick, you might remind them of a recent accident or injury and relate their treatment of animals to the pain or fear they felt. If all else fails and your children simply aren’t ready to interact with animals responsibly, you may have to separate the kids and pets in your home with gates or a baby play yard until your toddlers are a bit older and more capable of comprehending the effect they have on animals. As a responsible adult, however, you might also feel compelled to find your pets a better home if your kids can’t seem to grasp that their actions are hurtful to animals.