By Jane Seymour
Yes, parenthood is all those sappy cliches written on Hallmark cards about unconditional love and transcendent joy. But it’s also mildly terrifying, an everyday lesson in humility; feeling like a failure at every juncture and realizing how little control you have over ensuring your kid becomes the delusional fantasy you have about the perfectly kind, generous, compassionate and polite child you will raise.
When my four-year-old daughter recently came home from school asking when she was going to the zoo, my animal-loving heart skipped a beat. How could my kid—the child of fervent animal lovers—want to go to, of all things, a zoo?
No one wants another article or blog about how to raise a kid—I will spare you, mostly because your guess is as good as mine—but it turns out there are some things we parents can do to encourage kids to respect animals. A love of animals seems to be innate with children, instinctual; we adults either cultivate or destroy that impulse. You can’t make your kid be anything, but there are ways parents can encourage an appreciation, a loving curiosity, for animals—that hopefully sticks for a lifetime.
- Don’t take your kid(s) zoos/aquariums. At best, zoos and aquariums are completely unnatural habitats for animals. And people gawking at captive wild animals is extraordinarily stressful for most of those animals—who would, in the wild, stay as far away from people as possible. But our culture accepts the fact of zoos, so this is an issue we have to discuss with our children, and explain why we don’t participate in a form of animal exploitation even if it’s widely accepted.
- Do take your kids to accredited farm animal sanctuaries. Many domesticated animals enjoy human contact, and the fact that the sanctuary is accredited ensures the animals are not bred, exploited, bought or sold, in addition to being cared for in a compassionate way. Many sanctuaries have programs for children, where they learn about the individual animals and why/how they end up in sanctuaries.
- Make your yard wildlife friendly. Putting out birdseed and squirrel treats demonstrates a respect for animals and compassion for their well-being. Allow your kids to become part of the routine—refilling feeders, etc. You can even make homemade suet for birds and squirrels; there are many recipes available for free online, but search for one that’s vegan (some recipes have lard, which is not necessary). You can also make and put out owl and bat boxes. And don’t forget about planting native wild flowers for butterflies, bees and others insects.
- Read your kids animal-friendly books. There are some gems out there in the children’s literature world that teach kids to respect animals. The True Adventure of Esther the Wonder Pig, Gwen the Rescue Hen, That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals, V is for Vegan: The ABC’s of Being Kind…are just a few of the titles available. (Check your local library!)
- Watch nature documentaries together. Today we are lucky to have technology that has the ability to transport children to animals of the land and sea in their native habitats in breathtaking, educational ways. Zoos teach children to view animals as a form of entertainment, unlike a nature show on TV or in the theater that films animals in the wild. Digital IMAX documentaries in particular have become stunning and inspiring, and you can’t help leave feeling awe and respect for wild animals and with a mindset about the need to help conserve their habitats. The good news is IMAX has grown from 299 screens worldwide at the end of 2007 to more than 1,102 screens in 2016. We love PBS’ “Nature” series.
- Encourage quiet observation of animals in nature. Every time you go outside there are birds, insects, squirrels, frogs, fish and other creatures to see, if you’re quiet and if you look. So explore natural areas around you. Visit a tidepool, creek or river or take a hike in a forest or nature preserve. Point out all the animals. Talk about them. Teach your kids not to kill bugs. If your kids are loud and scare animals away, talk about animals being scared of loud noises. Every encounter with the natural world can be used to teach children about animals and their place within the local ecosystem and why its important to protect open spaces.
- Look and listen for evidence of animals every time you are outdoors. You may see tracks, nests, or other signs of animals. You may hear birds chattering in the cold winter morning. Allow the children to point out their observations and the “clues” that wildlife is everywhere.
- If you have dogs or cats, these members of your family are likely to be the best teachers of all. By teaching your children to treat the family pets with deep love and affection, they are likely to apply these lessons to all animals they encounter. Have your children become part of the care-taking routine of feeding, watering, walking, exercise and play.
- Encourage children to think about “what it’s like to be that groundhog” (or squirrel, or ant or pig….). This invitation to imagine not only builds vocabulary and language skills, but it also helps children develop the habit of perspective-taking, which is another term for empathy.
- Suggest your kid help raise money for a local animal shelter or rescue. Inevitably, in the course of educating kids about animals, they will want to help. Kids are wildly imaginative and resourceful, and encouraging a small fundraiser for animals not only helps animals, but it also teaches selflessness, generosity and offers some perspective on money.
- Volunteer with your kids at a local shelter or rescue. Nearly all shelters have programs which have volunteers who come in and walk dogs, play with cats and kittens, or foster animals from the shelter until permanent homes are found. All of these activities are great for children (and parents!).
- Encourage your child’s natural wonder. Sometimes, it’s children themselves who teach us how to be kind toward animals. Listen to and observe them, too. They will inevitably ask a million questions about animals; many of those questions you won’t know the answer to. Do some research together as a family. Ask questions. Encourage curiosity, as that’s one of our greatest teachers of being a good human.