Cat Stevens once sang “I love my dog as much as I love you. You may fail, my dog will always come through,” and it appears that children take it one step further. A recent study by Cambridge University reveals that children love their family pets more than their brothers or sisters.
According to Canadian-born Matt Cassels, lead researcher on the study, children were just as likely to disclose secrets or fears to pets as siblings, and in some cases, more so.
What does this mean?
We need some context before we start taking our kids to psychologists for preferring Fido to Fiona. We definitely don’t want to get rid of our family pets because kids who grow up with animals are much better off than those who don’t. Firstly, the study is based upon reports from the children. It’s not ‘cool’ to profess love for your siblings. Nor are children masters of expressing what they actually feel, so they may overstate or underestimate their attachments. In addition, the report says they like their pets MORE, not that they hate their siblings.
Furthermore, a certain amount of sibling rivalry is found in every culture in the world and is perfectly normal. It generally subsides around the late teen years, when the siblings stop seeing each other as competition for parental resources.
Why do children prefer the company of family pets?
Well, a fair amount of research has gone into this, too. It’s long been known that pets increase human well-being and that even being around a pet can cause a release of oxytocin, the ‘love hormone’. Dogs are used in therapy for the aged and those with mental and social disabilities. They are non-judgmental, silent and unconditionally-accepting confidants for children.
Confiding in the family pet, or even just getting some affection from them when kids are feeling down, gives children a safety-valve, a way of airing their problems without embarrassment or the fear of being judged. The Cambridge study found that girls, in particular, find this ‘pressure release’ helpful.
Get a dog. Do it for the kids.
Several studies have confirmed that children do better in homes with pets and that children use interactions with pets as a kind of transitional phase for interactions with humans. Pets essentially provide relationships with ‘training wheels’ and serve as a way to prepare children for adult relationships.
Children with pets can have higher levels of social, emotional, cognitive and physical development than children without. Caring for a pet can also increase their self-confidence and prepare them for adult responsibilities. Not to be morbid, but the death of a pet is generally the first family death a child has to deal with. Handling the emotions attendant on that sad occasion may lay the groundwork for dealing with future loss. Not all valuable lessons feel good.
In short, your kids may treat family pets as the first port of call when they need companionship or a friendly ear. However, this is perfectly normal and nothing to be concerned about. Pets prepare your child in myriad ways for the complexities of the adult world, and are invaluable in their development. Know that you’re giving them an advantage in life by having that cat or dog to pal around with, and helping them build a better future for themselves. A future that, we hope, will include many more furry friends.