Pets, children, and the Seven Principles

girl with puppy (©Aldo Murillo/iStockphoto)
©2009 Aldo Murillo/iStockphoto

Beyond the unconditional love, loyalty, and affection we expect, a family pet can also offer children a chance to develop a sense of responsibility and learn about the cycle of life right in their own home. Taking care of a pet has also proven to facilitate the development of compassion and empathy with all living things. For Unitarian Universalist children, having a beloved family pet can help them understand many of our Seven Principles.

According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, having the opportunity to share secrets and private thoughts with a special animal friend can encourage a child to develop trusting relationships with others and even help with the development of non-verbal communication skills. You might say that just having a pet improves a child’s role-playing skills because they must put themselves in the pet’s position in order to feel how the pet feels. It’s only natural to then assume that this can transfer to determining how other kids might feel. In this regard, a pet in the home can help a child not only conceptualize the interdependent web of life, but understand the inherent worth and dignity of all people through developing empathy and compassion for other beings.

Children can experience the miracle of birth if their pet has offspring and become acquainted with loss and grief when a beloved pet dies. In between these two events, the cycle of life is witnessed and felt in a loving, touching way that no other childhood experience can match. Whether that pet is a goldfish swimming in a makeshift aquarium, hamsters in a wire cage, cats who rule the roost, dogs offering unconditional love, or even those odd-looking iguanas, that pet will hold special meaning in your child’s life. When the time comes to say “goodbye,” the loss and grief can be acute, but death is a natural part of life and all of us must learn this lesson at some point in our lives.

Pets are such an integral part of many of our lives that many Unitarian Universalist congregations celebrate this unique relationship though an annual Blessing of the Pets worship service. Families are encouraged to bring their pet(s) on Sunday morning, being mindful of other who might have allergies and pets that do not get along well with others. However, most people who’ve been part of such a worship service have thought the animals were generally as well-behaved as the humans in attendance. And at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Elkhart in Elkhart, Indiana, one year the only accident on the floor was the result of my two-year-old toddler’s excitement and not that of one of the many four-legged friends who were present that day.

Other resources: In Praise of Animals: A Treasury of Poems, Quotations, and Readings, edited by Edward Searl (Skinner House Books, 2007).

Published by

Michelle Richards

Michelle Richards is a credentialed religious educator and religious education consultant for the Central Midwest District. Previously, she was the director of religious education for the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Elkhart, Indiana, for seven years, and the chair of the Central Midwest District's Religious Education Committee. Richards is the author of "Come Into the Circle: Worshiping with Children" and "Tending the Flame: The Art of Unitarian Universalist Parenting," both from Skinner House Books.

  • Patricia Collier

    Pets are indeed a good way to teach our children all kinds of wonderful things. One of the most important lessons we can teach them is how to become responsible pet guardians. But, given that over 8,000 unwanted or abandoned dogs and cats are being euthanized every day, allowing our children to “experience the miracle of birth if their pet has offspring” is unnecessary. With all due respect, if our goal is to show children the birth process, there are plenty of books and web sites we can use to educate them instead of adding potentially more unwanted animals to the world.

  • Anonymous

    Totally agreeing with this one except for that “miracle of
    birth” reference.  During my years as a humane educator I learned that
    wanting children to experience that “miracle” was among the main reasons for
    pet over-population.  After that miracle (which most kids miss because
    they aren’t around when it happens) comes messes most people don’t want to deal
    with, vet expenses which most people aren’t prepared for – or even aware of the
    need for – and, for the lucky litters, a trip to a shelter where they are
    usually “put down” because no homes can be found.  The less lucky litters
    are killed by their owners.  And the least lucky litters are often
    dumped.  The kids are told they’ll be “free” to “catch rabbits”  or,
    for kittens,  to “catch mice.” I’m guessing most of you don’t need to hear
    the details about what really happens to dumped pets.  Please stress to
    anyone considering having a litter so their children can experience this
    miracle to use books, videos, the Internet, or a visit to a farm or zoo


    Note also that even when the owners think they’ve arranged for
    homes in advance for the planned litter, those offers often fall through. 
    Even if they don’t, it is better overall for families wanting pets to adopt
    them already-born from shelters rather than encouraging more births.

    Please, encourage every pet owner you know to spay and neuter as early as their vet recommends.