Although your school system should (and even might) have humane education programs as part of their curriculum, the ultimate responsibility for teaching children to be humane lies with the parents. There are so many ways to get involved with helping your child understand the importance of compassion for animals, and it will allow you to spend quality time with your child and will help to impress upon them an appreciation for life. (If you are a humane educator looking for materials, click here.)
Sometimes children are so overwhelmed with affection for their pets that they inadvertently squeeze the stuffing out of them, so to speak. (Raising Children Who Think For Themselves - Dr. Eisa Medhus) In these situations, very young children simply may not understand how to properly handle the animal without harming it. Showing the child how to handle the animal gently and explaining that the child's actions are hurting the animal will often result in the chilld quickly understanding what is appropriate.
Through parents, teachers and social situations, children are taught that abuse is wrong, and the child discontinues the abusive behavior. Childhood is a critical time, and if any one of those corrective elements is missing, that child is high risk for potentially becoming more abusive later on. It is imperative that you reinforce positive relationships with animals with your children.
Children are impressionable and are influenced by what they see on television and what their friends find acceptable. The best way to prevent a child from becoming abusive is to take steps before there is a problem. Teaching them compassion and proper handling of animals at an early age will go a long way to encouraging in them a respect for animals - and for other people.
Some Ways to Get Them Involved:
See if your local community has programs such as shelter interaction or wildlife rehabilitation specifically targeted at youth, to give them a hands-on sense of caring and responsibility for animals.
If you have a family pet, make sure the children are involved with caring for the animal. Help them look up information online or in the library about the animal, and help them feel a sense of responsibility for the animal s health and welfare.
Participate in humane education activities with your child. There are loads of great resources out there that have been designed specifically to teach and encourage respect towards animals. (see the Related Pages links at the bottom of the page)
Teach them to tell someone if they see an animal being abused - let them know that they will not get in trouble for "tattletale-ing", even if the abuser is an adult.
Show them how other children make a difference! A great example is shown in formerly published on the DDFL website, which shows how two 12 year boys made their Christmas list count, by requesting dog toys, donations, and dog food to donate, instead of toys and games for themselves! Exposing your children to ideas like this reinforce and praise their unselfish acts, and make them feel like they can make a difference even at an early age. You will be helping them feel good about themselves, and empowering their young minds. Letting them see how, even as children, they have the power and ability to do some amazing things if they want to will be a message they will carry with them for the rest of their lives! If you work with them on something like this, it can have tremendous impact on them. For example, you could make it a tradition that every year, at least two items on their Christmas list must be for a local animal shelter. You can then go with your child to deliver the presents to the shelter, where the appreciation and gratitude of both the shelter and the pets will be a long-lasting reward that will stay with them for a lifetime.
Be a good role model! You are one of the most influential people in your child's life. Teach them to be humane and caring towards animals by being humane and caring towards animals yourself. A child notices more than you may realize, and your words and actions will often have more of an impact than all their years of education in school combined.
What to Do if Your Child is Abusing Animals
The most important thing you can do if you know or suspect that a child is being cruel to animals is to talk to them. If a child has been intentionally cruel to an animal, you should be concerned, and should take action quickly to explain to them that the behavior is wrong and hurtful. You should NEVER ignore or make light of the abuse. Animal cruelty is NEVER a "boys will be boys" situation -- they will NOT grow out of it -- if you do not react to their cruelty. Immediate intervention is required, no matter what the level of abuse is.
While every child develops at a different rate, the ASPCA has an excellent article relating to how to handle animal abuse in various stages of a child's growth. Check out Kids and Cruelty: Explaining Animal Cruelty.