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Children And Keeping Pets

( Originally Published 1916 )

CHILDREN of today have many advantages that grow directly out of the searchings of the scientific spirit of the age. Their health is guarded as never before, and the details of their diet are calculated to fractions of an ounce. Their schooling is much more efficient and even their play has been improved through scientific investigation.

But the same scientific spirit has deprived the modern child of certain elements that were of great signifificance in development and training. It has taken from the home the many processes related to the preparation of food and clothing, and with them certain educative influences that the schools have scarcely learned to compensate. Most important of all, our modern home has had taken from it that intimacy with lower animals which formerly contributed so much to the informal education of children.

Girls and boys used to grow up with a knowledge about the ordinary life processes that the child of today seems hardly to suspect. To be sure, they gathered also a great deal of superstition and false tradition ; but they did really know something fundamentally sound about horses and cats and dogs and chickens. The domestic animals taught the children about life, even where there was no chance to get close to the wood folks. Where the children had to help in the care of animals, they learned responsibility that knew no compromise with convenience or the weather. Everything else in life can wait, perhaps, but never the regular feeding and watering of the animals.

The children learned the close relations that exist between the physical conditions and the health and welfare of the animals, so that careful measurement of feed, and the protection of the animals against over-work or against unfavorable weather furnished a basis for standards of conduct in relation to living things. In spite of defective understanding, there was developed what we might call sound sentiment in the treatment of the dumb creatures.

Now it ought to be possible for most children to get the benefits that may be derived from association with the lower animals. Even in large cities, where there are serious objections to the keeping of dogs and cats, nearly every home could manage to keep a few live fish in a jar of water, or a bird in a cage. Guinea pigs or pet mice occupy little space, and that is some-thing to consider in a small city flat.

The keeping of live pets in the house will, of course, give the child an opportunity to learn a great deal about the ways of the animals. This may not be very valuable in itself, but it is valuable as a stimulus to thought. Theodore asked more questions per hour for the two weeks after he got his pair of guinea pigs than he had asked at any time before—or than he was likely ever to ask again. The interest aroused could not be equaled by any mechanical contrivance that the shops may offer.

Very few enlightened parents today doubt the wisdom of giving children instruction about sex and re-production. And it is quite generally recognized that such instruction should, so far as possible, be imparted by the parents themselves. This is important, first, because the child's questions should be answered when he is still too young to go to others for information. In the second place, it furnishes the basis for a relation of intimacy and confidence between the parent and child that hardly anything else can supply. At the same time we realize how few are the opportunities, and how rare the natural approach to the subject. This difficulty is well met by the presence in the home or about the premises of some lower animals with their broods.

But more important than any intellectual gain is the probable effect on the child's character and sentiments. To have the care of the animals, and to realize what depends upon the regular performance of his share of the daily routine, will furnish a most effective lesson in the bearing of responsibility.

The effect of Helen's neglecting to put her toys or her clothes away in their proper places, was some arbitrary punishment. But the effect of Helen's neglecting to clean the aquarium for two or three days was the death of one of the pretty goldfish. And nothing more impressive had ever happened to Helen before. She had learned to love the animals, and there was no escape from the responsibility for the loss. It was too bad to sacrifice the goldfish, but the lesson to Helen was probably worth several little fish. At any rate, she never again neglected the creatures in her charge.

But the impressiveness of the lesson was due in large measure to the fact that the child did love the fish. And it is this affection that the child can have for his pets that is the most valuable feature, from the educational side. It is this that makes the child learn the meaning of devotion and sacrifice and service. But it is for this reason also that a pet should never be forced upon a child. As Mrs. Comstock says in her The Pet Book "If the child tires of a pet, it should be given to someone else, or chloroformed. It is a cruel act to make a pet dependent upon a careless or unloving master, and it teaches a child cruelty and hardness of heart to be obliged to give unloving care."

Most children quickly learn to love pet animals of almost any kind. We should consult the preferences of the children, and we should guard against selecting an animal that is likely to be a burden to his human companion. Of course the conditions of the home must be considered in selecting the fellow-inmates. In the country, or even in the suburbs, it is possible to select from a much wider range of animal life. But there is sufficient choice in the world of life to meet the conditions in all but the humblest of city homes.

For learning about animals, the museums and the zoological gardens are no doubt excellent contrivances. But for learning responsibility and devotion, each child should have a pet he can love.

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