(© istockphoto/Aldo Murillo)
Beyond the unconditional love, loyalty, and affection we expect, a family pet can also offer children a chance to develop a sense of responsibility and learn about the cycle of life right in their own home. Taking care of a pet has also proven to facilitate the development of compassion and empathy with all living things. For Unitarian Universalist children, having a beloved family pet can help them understand many of our Seven Principles.
According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, having the opportunity to share secrets and private thoughts with a special animal friend can encourage a child to develop trusting relationships with others and even help with the development of non-verbal communication skills. You might say that just having a pet improves a child’s role-playing skills because they must put themselves in the pet’s position in order to feel how the pet feels. It’s only natural to then assume that this can transfer to determining how other kids might feel. In this regard, a pet in the home can help a child not only conceptualize the interdependent web of life, but understand the inherent worth and dignity of all people through developing empathy and compassion for other beings.
Children can experience the miracle of birth if their pet has offspring and become acquainted with loss and grief when a beloved pet dies. In between these two events, the cycle of life is witnessed and felt in a loving, touching way that no other childhood experience can match. Whether that pet is a goldfish swimming in a makeshift aquarium, hamsters in a wire cage, cats who rule the roost, dogs offering unconditional love, or even those odd-looking iguanas, that pet will hold special meaning in your child’s life. When the time comes to say “goodbye,” the loss and grief can be acute, but death is a natural part of life and all of us must learn this lesson at some point in our lives.
Pets are such an integral part of many of our lives that many Unitarian Universalist congregations celebrate this unique relationship though an annual Blessing of the Pets worship service. Families are encouraged to bring their pet(s) on Sunday morning, being mindful of other who might have allergies and pets that do not get along well with others. However, most people who’ve been part of such a worship service have thought the animals were generally as well-behaved as the humans in attendance. And at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Elkhart in Elkhart, Indiana, one year the only accident on the floor was the result of my two-year-old toddler’s excitement and not that of one of the many four-legged friends who were present that day.
Other resources: In Praise of Animals: A Treasury of Poems, Quotations, and Readings, edited by Edward Searl (Skinner House Books, 2007).
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Michelle Richards is the author of Tending the Flame: The Art of Unitarian Universalist Parenting (Skinner House, 2010).