At my daughter’s nursery recently, the children were treated to a visit from a petting farm – a wonderful treat for any young child.
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An array of traditional farmyard animals such as ducks, rabbits, sheep, goats and Shetland ponies were dotted around the school field, with the children invited to stroke, brush and feed them. In my day, the only visitor we had was a dishevelled Father Christmas (aka the most willing dad in the village), so on the way to the school gate to collect her, I was excited to hear all about the fuzzy fun these lucky children had experienced.
Whilst waiting patiently outside, eager to be reunited with my little farm girl, I overheard a conversation between two mums waiting alongside me. It went something like this:
Mum 1: Did you see they had a farm visit this morning?
Mum 2: Yeah, my son would have absolutely hated it. He hates animals.
Mum 1: Oh that’s a shame.
Mum 2: Yeah, I hate animals too so I wonder if he gets it from me?
I stood in shock listening to this. The first mum hit the nail on the head – what a shame. What a real shame. And yes, I’m guessing he does get his loathing of animals from Mum 2.
Today is World Animal Day and what a wonderful day it is – an extra excuse to appreciate the bundles of fluff that complete our families and also support charities that work so hard to help innocent animals around the world, that needlessly suffer.
My daughter Edie has had dogs in her life from the moment she was born, so she knows no different. Like all children, she was born with an innocent mind, no ill feeling towards anything (including animals), just accepting and intrigued by all around her. I clearly recall the early months when she would laugh hysterically at our dogs wandering about the house – what young baby isn’t going to be thrilled by such mysterious, alien creatures?
And as the months and years have passed, despite not knowing any different, it’s obvious what the dogs have taught her – she is a loving, kind young girl who knows how to be gentle around another being, knows there’s always a reassuring and furry cuddle only metres away and yet knows to keep a respectful distance when it’s required. And that’s the beautiful simplicity of animals; without wanting much in return they can help nurture some of life’s most important values: kindness, loyalty, tolerance and responsibility.
Aside from ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’ it’s quite likely that ‘dog’, ‘cat’ or ‘duck’ will feature in a baby’s first words because aside from being easy to say, animals are simply everywhere during childhood – as toys, on TV, in books, on clothing and nursery decorations. Yet beyond this early introduction, so many children won’t really experience animals at such close hand again. It could be because of living restraints where pets aren’t allowed (but there’s never a zoo or city/country farm too far away), or it could be due to finances, or work constraints. But sadly, more often than not it’s probably because their parents will pass on their own phobias or negativities.
Nobody’s perfect and it’s inevitable that we’ll pass on some of our own beliefs whether we realise it or not. The one thing a parent can do however, even if they’ve had a bad experience themselves, is try to let their children start on a clean slate and discover animals for themselves. Children should know that all creatures great and small deserve respect, so instead of passing on phobias and fears, even about something as small as a spider, we should control our negativity around our children to ensure any adverse influence is minimal.
I’m not going to preach how you should now rush to your nearest animal shelter and bring home a pet – that would be irresponsible. What would be responsible is for parents to allow their children to make up their own minds, to encourage them to be inquisitive when they come across an animal (with the owner’s permission, of course) and to teach them how important they all are in the world around them. Then, when they see a dog on a walk, a cat in the street or a horse in a field, they’ll be amazed and enthusiastic rather than scared. Then, when they grow up they can race to their nearest shelter on their own!
But for now, as so many children around the world enjoy World Animal Day, please encourage your children to appreciate every one of our wonderful, furry friends. It really would be a shame to miss out on the plethora of lessons they can teach them and us all – whether it’s about companionship and kindness, or simply the absolute, unerring and unconditional love they can give.