Ten Emotional Intelligence Lessons Taught by Pets
Monday, April 6, 2015 – 11:15am
Denise Daniels is an award-winning broadcast journalist, parenting and child development expert and author who specializes in the social and emotional development of children. Denise hosted her parenting show, Parents Helper, on NBC’s cable network and has appeared on numerous morning and primetime TV shows. Read more by visiting Denise’s website or by following her on Facebook or Twitter.
One of the greatest lessons of my life came from a dog. It was Christmas Eve, 1989, and it happened as our house was burning to the ground. As we stood in the snow in our jammies, our Newfoundland, Alfie kept running back toward the house to make sure all the children were out and that everyone was safe. (We were, thankfully). That action was the most powerful lesson in pure, selfless, unconditional love that I’d ever witnessed.
While not everyone’s experience will be that dramatic (I hope!), pets are invaluable in teaching families, especially children, “emotional intelligence,” or EQ—their ability to empathize, understand and connect with others. EQ can grow and be nurtured, and what better way than with a loving pet who is a gift to the whole family? Here are 10 ways in which pets can help children develop their EQ:
- By teaching children to care for something besides themselves. One of the cornerstones of EQ is empathy. Hearing a kitten meow when it wants to eat or seeing a dog run to the door when it wants to go outside gets kids to think, “What are their needs, and what can I do to help?”
- By being a non-judgmental pal. If your child got in trouble at school, is struggling to read, or has difficulty with homework, pets love them regardless. While parents have to be disciplinarians, pets don’t. Pets show children the meaning of true friendship.
- By teaching children to read nonverbal cues. Children aren’t born understanding facial expressions, body language, or gestures, but loving a pet can help them learn. When my husband leaves for the airport, our dog pouts. Parents can point out this kind of thing: “Look, Fido is feeling sad today” or “Max the cat is turning his back because he doesn’t want you to leave.” Children will learn how that applies to other humans and animals.
- By teaching responsibility. I’ve heard people say, “I’m not getting a pet because I’m the one who will end up taking care of it.” We do have to be aware of our child’s ability level, but at a very early age, children can be taught graduated levels of responsibility.
- By letting boys practice nurturing. All children need to learn this skill, but this is especially important for boys, who—for all our efforts and awareness—may not be taught to show tender feelings. With a pet, it’s socially acceptable to be loving and gentle, scratching pets’ ears and tummies.
- By providing a natural stress buster. At the National Childhood Grief Institute, we conducted a study with the Delta Society (now called Pet Partners) using dogs in children’s support groups. A therapy dog would sit in front of an emotional child and put its head in the child’s lap. As the child started petting the dog, you could visibly see the child relax. We studied the blood pressure readings of the dogs and the children, and the experience lowered the blood pressure of both. There’s almost no better way to help a child deal with stress than with the company of a loving pet.
- By boosting confidence. Learning to read can be stressful for a young child. And while reading out loud is critical for literacy, it can be difficult for a child who’s intimidated or embarrassed. The answer? Read to your pet. Children can go at their own pace and sound out difficult words with no fear of judgment.
- By providing stability. After our house burned down in 1989, our family was displaced for months, and our Newfie couldn’t stay with us. It wasn’t until we were reunited in our new house that our family was truly whole. People and situations can be unpredictable, but pets are stable, loyal and true.
- By helping children express their emotions. It can be hard for children to talk about powerful emotions. I’ve worked with children all around the world who’ve dealt with the traumas of war and natural disaster. In these cases, a loving animal is invaluable. Besides reducing a child’s stress, an animal provides safety and comfort. Dogs and cats listen and are there for you.
- By making children laugh. Whether it’s chasing laser pointers or their own tails, jumping into cardboard boxes or rolling in snow, there’s no greater source of free entertainment than a pet doing its goofy thing—and there’s nothing healthier or more joyous than a child bursting into an unselfconscious peal of laughter.