To a young child, animals are endlessly fascinating. Babies and toddlers are amazed by these seemingly-magical creatures that move with fur, feathers or fin and look nothing like them. Our children enthusiastically run toward our cat Morpheus, while our other cat Airplane is smart enough to stay securely hidden under our bed. Indeed Morpheus is often too social for his own good, carelessly walking right in the middle of where the children are playing. Of course, the kids are all too happy to include him.
Yes, our cats are named Morpheus and Airplane. My husband and I named Morpheus after the literary bringer of dreams, and Sunboy named Airplane when he was a toddler.
It can be a long process to teach children a proper respect for animals. In our home, we emphasize that Morpheus is “his own kitty”, meaning that we can’t make Morpheus do things he doesn’t want to do. Morpheus is self-actualized and self-determined (as much as a housecat can be). We tell the kids that our house is as much the cats’ home as it is our home, and that no one in the house should be chased if they don’t want to be. Even so, a toddler’s endless curiosity are not always interpreted by a kitty with the innocence intended.
Sunboy and Flowergirl have local “grandparents” (unrelated to us but in every way fulfilling the role) who have a large black dog, a friendly Black Lab named Victor. Although my husband and I are very much cat people, watching Victor play with the kids makes us wonder if a dog is a more suitable match for a toddler’s animal explorations. Even when Flowergirl was shorter than Victor, he knew that she was in charge and patiently let her climb on him. Morpheus was not nearly as understanding when Sunboy tried to climb on him when he was a toddler.
Likewise, I can recall trying to touch my pet fish when I was young, something the fish undoubtedly found traumatizing. There is also the undeniable photo of me swaddling my childhood cat as if she were a baby. It’s a bit of a conundrum – all children get excited around animals and should have these interactions, but they lack the empathy and self-control to explore a relationship with an animal responsibly. It’s up to the parents to consistently set the tone.
We explain to Sunboy and Flowergirl that animals ask for gentleness as a prerequisite for friendship, just as people do. We repeatedly tell our children that animals do not belong to us, they have their own lives and are more like roommates. Like anything, it will take time.
Learning to treat animals with respect sets important precedents for other areas of life. Just because a creature is different doesn’t make it somehow “less”. Just because you want something from another being doesn’t mean you can force it on them. A little imagination will help expand empathy and tell you whether a play partner is having fun. And sometimes going out of your way to give a friend special treats makes the time more fun for everyone.
Learning gentleness with animals encourages respect for all living beings. The groundwork of these early relationships with a fluffy kitty or a friendly dog will later inform respectful relationships with a playmate or with a stranger or with the Earth. Respect for others begins with the family, down to the family members who just happen to be to a different species.
Philosophical intent aside, I wish I could figure out a way to stop Flowergirl from chasing Morpheus. Now that Sunboy understands the proper behavior, he is helping her learn the limits.
Kat Lehmann believes we are all in the process of becoming and have a choice in what we become. She is a scientist who writes prose poetry about parenting and nature, and can be found sneaking outside to look at the moon when not keeping up with her children Sunboy and Flowergirl. You can connect with her at http://www.nurturingandnature.