Parenthood is a journey, with many crossroads. One of the most pivotal is: should we get a new dog? Or cat. Or other critter. Do we dare? Visions of our own childhood pets and giggling children rolling in a torrent of licks are countered by harrowing visions of standing in the rain waiting for potty, cleaning indoor potty, and tossing/turning as howls and whimpers claw at our psyche, these countered by big paws and sweet droopy eyes…
In my case, droopy eyes and paws won. Meet Newton:
It is rightly assumed that children love pets, and always have. Pets bring much happiness, are loyal companions, and become a treasured part of our families. So how to explain the explosion of virtual/electronic versions of them, threatening to make our furry friends obsolete alongside books with real pages? What’s next: virtual/electronic siblings? Parents? Grandparents?
I attribute the trend to 3 things: 1) pets are dirty, 2) taking care them is hard work, and 3) the allure of technology and its many promises, including learning, entertainment, and a quick fix. It’s also easy to collect hundreds of virtual pets and kennel them in a hard drive. When bored or annoyed, we can just delete them. If we forget to feed, pet, or let them out, it doesn’t matter. They don’t bite the e-mailman. Call it a riff on “better living through science.”
When I was a kid in the 70s, the choice was easy: big dog, little dog, cat, rock, hermit crab, other, or none. Nowadays, the choices seem endless, all leading to the same unruly beast: more screen time, and less time in the real world.
Apps: mostly simple noise makers or games, including Sara’s Pretty Pet Parlour, Cute Kitten & Puppy Sounds, Playful Chihuahua, and the mysterious, Pet Hotel Story.
Videos: exotic to plain, e.g. Baby Einstein Animals Around Me Discovery Kit for ages 3-24 months, with DVD and flash cards. And perhaps the best DVD ever made: Let’s Talk With Puppy Dog Baby Phonics, ages 0-18 months. Note, it’s a National Award Winner.
Stuffed/Computer Hybrids, e.g. Webkinz – these and others like them start simply enough, as stuffed animals. However, each has an online key luring the owner online, “where your plush pet comes to life,” redefining life as life in cyberspace. Kids are then prompted to buy clothes, food, and even furniture for their pets using Kinz cash, and “take care of” them via Happy, Health, and Hunger meters. Extra Kinz Cash is earned taking quizzes and playing video games in the Webkinz online arcade, where kids should “play every day!”
As with most e-media for young children, all of these promise learning, ranging from ABCs, matching, and counting, to responsibility, to discovery of exotic ecosystems, all without hassle or mess. So why are real pets so important?
Though they don’t teach ABCs, sing about the rainforest, or come with learning labels, real pets are robustly educational, offering benefits for children exceeding any screen-based activity. Pets teach patience and responsibility, and are multi-sensorial, as any dog bather can attest. Pets are real and thus unpredictable, requiring adaptability, risk assessment, and problem solving. Studies have found associations between pet ownership and children’s self-esteem, social skills, empathy, and non-verbal communication, i.e. “reading your pet.” This last point should be emphasized, as the ability to interpret non-verbal cues is a key component of human communication, which is not reproduced well by technology. Anecdotal reports even suggest deficits in non-verbal communication paralleling increases in screen time. Pets are also a remedy for our increasingly quick-fix mentality, operating in wonderfully quirky ways on unique, analog schedules.
As for infants, a fascinating 1987 study found that infants spent more time observing and were more engaged by a real dog than an interactive toy one. This is consistent with the well-described video deficit, where young children learn far better from real people and materials than video screens.
Recent studies show that in addition to psychological and spiritual benefits, pets help children stay physically healthy.
An amazing August, 2012 study in the journal Pediatrics found that children who have a dog or cat or are around dogs and cats during the first year of life are reported to be healthier and have fewer respiratory infections – especially ear infections – than children without contact to these animals. Children with ear infections required shorter courses of antibiotics. Cat ownership also showed a protective effect, but not as strong as dogs (don’t tell the cat). The conclusion was that animal contact may have an influence on the maturation of the immune system in infancy, with lasting benefits.
That’s not all! A 2010 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that children (here 9-10 y/o) in households owning dogs spent on average 11 minutes more in physical activity, and 11 minutes less sedentary behavior (i.e. sitting on the sofa) than non-owners. Absolute activity effect varies by family, but in all cases dogs (like books for sharing) are catalysts, offering potential for anything from hours of fetch and running around to a simple stroll around the yard. Along with healthy diet and screen time reduction, ownership holds promise for obesity prevention, as well as ADHD and other behavioral problems.
Some authors even go so far as to suggest a recommended daily allowance of animal (and nature) contact by children to keep them healthy, akin to that for nutrients and sunshine. The bottom line is – real pets are healthy! Dirty is ok, too. Once again, we see how often for children, old-school is the best school. Pets are perfect the way they are: fuzzy, smelly, noisy, occasionally annoying, loyal, wonderful, and alive!