Teaching kids to have compassion and empathy for their furry, feathered, and finned friends is vital for preventing cruelty to animals as well as in raising them to respect and treat those who are different from them with kindness. According to the National PTA Congress, “Children trained to extend justice, kindness, and mercy to animals become more just, kind, and considerate in their relations to each other. Character training along these lines will result in men and women of broader sympathies; more humane, more lawabiding, in every respect more valuable citizens.”
Live by and teach the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Since young children naturally identify with animals, and because animals are living beings like us, we can use our interactions with animals to teach children how to behave toward other people. Teaching our kids to respect and protect even the smallest and most despised among us is one of the most important life lessons that we can pass along to them. It helps them learn to value one another—and it prevents violence.
Empathy Training Prevents Violence
Decades of evidence show that a child’s attitude toward animals can predict future behavior. According to published reports, in every highly publicized school shooting, one warning sign appeared consistently: All the young killers abused or killed animals before turning on their classmates.
According to FBI profilers, psychiatric professionals, law-enforcement officials, and child advocacy organizations, people who hurt animals may eventually direct violence toward humans. Cruelty to animals is considered one of three symptoms that predict the development of a psychopath, and it is included as a criterion for a conduct disorder in children by the American Psychiatric Association.
People who are capable of such acts have a severely underdeveloped sense of empathy—they lack the ability to comprehend or care about the distress or agony that they are causing. Without empathy, it is easy to think of others as unfeeling machines. Teaching kindness and respect for animals is the first step in teaching children empathy.
Teach Kindness by Example
Incorporating simple concepts of kindness and respect into kids’ daily lives is simple and fun! The easiest and most important way to teach your little ones empathy is to lead by example.
- Listen to yourself with new ears—don’t yell “shut up,” “stupid dog,” or other hurtful things.
- Never hit animals.
- Show that you value animals’ lives by being patient with them, making sure that they all wear an ID tag, spaying or neutering them to prevent unwanted litters, giving them plenty of clean water, and providing regular veterinary care.
- Include your animals in your life. Allow your dog to live inside with the family, and spend time with your animal companions daily, brushing them, playing with them, and walking them.
- Sometimes tiny creatures wander into our homes—help them find their way out nonviolently.
- Avoid statements that demean animals—even those made in jest—such as “I hate cats” or “Chickens are stupid.”
- Remember that toys influence children. Don’t buy toys that even hint at animal exploitation, such as video games that allow children to kill animals or model zoos or circus trains.
Show your kids that it’s cool to care by regularly engaging them in these and other fun empathy-building activities:
- Go to your local animal shelter and volunteer with your child to help care for homeless animals.
- Plant flowers and shrubbery for butterflies, bees, and other wildlife in your back yard.
- During a walk at the beach, in the woods, or by a stream, pick up plastic rings, bottles, and other trash that can kill birds, turtles, dolphins, and other animals.
- Watch animal-friendly movies, such as Chicken Run, Bambi, Lady and the Tramp,Shiloh, Free Willy, Babe, My Dog Skip, Finding Nemo, and Shark Tale.
- Read your children books that show animals as feeling individuals, such as Lassie Come Home, Black Beauty, Charlotte’s Web, Frederick, Blueberries for Sal, The Forgotten Door, and Make Way for Ducklings.
With thanks to PETA for this wonderful article