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Pets Teach Kids New Tricks

Book examines the nurturing relationship boys in particular can find with pets

SATURDAY, Sept. 1, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- A dog may be "man's best friend," but it can play an even more important role in a young boy's life, giving him a unique opportunity to be caregiver and nurturer.

That's one of the theories discussed in Why the Wild Things Are, a new book that examines how youngsters' relationships with their pets could shape them as adults.

"We were interested in looking at the experiences children have that may help them develop nurturing qualities or the motivation to care for others appropriately, whether as a parent or caring for the elderly," explains author Gail F. Melson, a professor of developmental studies at Purdue University.

"We wondered whether that's something you sort of instantly acquire as an adult or when you become a parent, or how it might come about -- what happens during childhood that might prepare you or make you more interested in that."

The book, published by Harvard University Press, draws on psychological research, history and children's media in evaluating relationships with pets.

One of the most intriguing dynamics observed by Melson was how pets appear to serve as what she terms "gender-neutral" objects of affection and nurturing.

"In video taping and children, we found that kids are, in general, very interested in babies, but around the age of 4 or 5, a gender difference really emerges -- girls began to see baby care as very much a part of the feminine role that they were learning about, and boys were seeing it as part of the feminine role as well."

"Girls were sometimes even acting like little mommies but boys were showing much less interest."

When it came to pets, however, the nurturing seemed to come on strong from both genders, she says.

"Boys and girls perceived the care of the pet as not associated with being male or female. Hugging and cuddling and all of the care-giving was seen as 'gender neutral' -- with both boys and girls being equally involved and interested."

On a trip to the veterinarian, Melson says, she witnessed a perfect example of the phenomenon -- a father and son fawning over their sick dog.

"The young boy was with his sort of macho-looking dad, who was wearing these big work boots and a John Deere cap, and they were taking turns hugging and cuddling this little fluff of fur which was their sick dog."

"It was so tender and gentle. They had the dog up against their chests and were stroking it the way we instinctively hold a baby. And I thought, 'Where else have I seen that kind of affection in a very public place with humans?' And I couldn't think of anything else. It was a very striking image."

Melson stops short of drawing any conclusions about whether connections with pets will make boys better fathers.

"There's no evidence," she notes. "But I do think childhood itself is important, and having a pet can provide an opportunity for boys to be nurturing a small, dependent creature, and they don't have many other opportunities in our culture to do that. "

But judging from Melson's research, it's certainly an opportunity that's presented in a great number of American households.

According to the book, more than two-thirds of all American children grow up with pets and are more likely to have a pet in the household than both parents.

And with that many children growing up with four-legged companions, Melson says more research is needed to truly understand how such relationships affect people.

New York child psychologist Dr. James MacIntyre says despite the lack of research, experts do see positive relationships between pets and children, at the very least, as a good sign.

"Where I come from, I think any time a child of either sex is able to be involved with the care of a pet, that's a positive sign. It tells you things about the child's ability to empathize and be appropriate, because sometimes kids can get aggressive and inappropriate with pets," he says.

MacIntyre adds that the attraction children can have to animals -- whether as pets or as cartoon characters -- probably stems from notions of less-complex relationships.

"I think one of the reasons children finds animals, stuffed or real, so comforting is that they don't have all the 'stuff' that goes with humans... The animals can provide a comfortable and familiar presence," he says.

What To Do

Contact the Humane Society for more information on what you need to know before adopting a pet.

And the American Veterinary Medical Association has advice on how to choose a veterinarian for your pet.

SOURCES: Interviews with Gail F. Melson, Ph.D., professor of developmental studies, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind.; James MacIntyre, M.D., child and adolescent psychiatrist, associate professor of psychiatry, Albany Medical College, Albany, N.Y.; Purdue University press release
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