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«Child Development and the Human-Companion Animal Bond Gail F. Melson American Behavioral Scientist 2003 47: 31 DOI: 10.1177/0002764203255210 The ...»

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American Behavioral Scientist


Child Development and the Human-Companion Animal Bond

Gail F. Melson

American Behavioral Scientist 2003 47: 31

DOI: 10.1177/0002764203255210

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Child Development and the Human–Companion Animal Bond


Purdue University Companion animals are more common in households with minor children than in any other household type. More than 70% of U.S. households with children also have pets, with most parents reporting acquisition of an animal “for the children.” Yet, studies of children’s development largely have been limited to children’s relationships with other humans. This article argues for a biocentric approach to development, in which children’s contacts with the nonhuman world—animals, plants, and natural ecologies—come under scientific scrutiny. To understand the developmental significance of this ubiquitous aspect of children’s environments, theory and research on companion animals in relation to perceptual, cognitive, social, and emotional development are reviewed and evaluated. The significance of children’s encounters with animals, especially in the context of a human–companion animal bond, is emphasized. Biocentric research directions are described.

Keywords: pets; companion animals; psychology; children When the children were changing the water of the goldfish, Frank had a sudden impulse of cruelty, and said to the others, “Shall we stamp on it?”... Before she [the teacher] could stop them, they had thrown the fish out into the sand and stamped on it. They stood round and looked at it, rather excited, and obviously wishing they hadn’t done it, and Frank said, “Now let’s put it into water, and then it’ll come alive again.” —Isaacs (1930, pp. 204-205) Raymond put on his blue-jean pants as he stood by the bed

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In the preceding quotations, spanning almost 70 years, scholars of child development observed naturally occurring encounters between children and companion animals.1 In the first quote, Susan Isaacs, a British psychoanalyst, described a group of preschool children in her nursery school as they learned, the hard way, about the needs of fish. The second quote comes from One Boy’s Day by the Americans Roger Barker and Herbert Wright, pioneers of ecological psychology, who demonstrated their method of behavioral observation within natural settings by meticulously recording every waking moment in a single day (April 26, 1949) in the life of 7-year-old Raymond living with his parents and dog Honey in a small, Midwestern town. In the third quote, Gene Myers, a contemporary environmental psychologist, sensitively recorded a group of preschoolers for a year as they interacted with, looked at, and thought about animals.

These three accounts are exemplary but they are not common. By and large, scholars of child development have ignored or, at best, slighted children’s relationships with companion animals. This is surprising, for several reasons. First, companion animals are hardly a rare phenomenon; a recent survey by the American Veterinary Medical Association reported that 70% of all households with children younger than age 6 and 78% of all households with children older than age 6 had pets (AVMA, 1997). Similar percentages are reported in countries of Western Europe. Moreover, pets are more likely to be found in households with minor children than in any other household type.2 Companion animals and children literally go together; their co-occurrence within households raises the question of what, if any, influence each might have on the other. Second, the theoretical paradigms currently dominating the study of child development emphasize the importance of studying children within their naturally occurring environments, as Barker and Wright had urged more than 50 years ago. For example, Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) widely adopted ecological systems framework stresses that individual characteristics of children interact with multiple interrelated settings, such as family, school, peer groups, neighborhoods, communities, and society, and urges detailed examination of environmental characteristics and children’s interactions with them. Dynamic systems theory (Thelen, 2000), relationship psychology (Fogel, 1993), and attachment theory (Bowlby,

1969) all situate children’s development within the context of important relationship bonds. Presumably, these theoretical orientations would have led to studies of the nonhuman companions who are present in the majority of children’s environments, yet, with a few exceptions (see, in particular, Bryant, 1985;

Myers, 1998), scholars have restricted their inquiries to human relationships.

Elsewhere (Melson, 2001), I have argued that this anthropocentric, or human only, focus has impeded both theory and research into the developmental significance of animals, especially companion animals, for children. However, a small but growing group of developmentalists (Kahn, 1999; Myers, 1998) has been urging a “biocentric” approach to child development. Such an approach assumes that children will exhibit interest in and involvement with nonhuman as Downloaded from abs.sagepub.com at Tel Aviv University on November 24, 2010 Melson / CHILD DEVELOPMENT AND HCAB 33 well as human aspects of their environments. Consistent with the biophilia hypothesis (Kellert, 1997; Wilson, 1984), which posits that humans have adapted to be attentive to life forms, children are expected to show particular interest in living nonhumans, especially other animals.3 To demonstrate the usefulness of such an approach, I will briefly describe how considering children’s connections with companion animals can enrich understanding of children’s perceptual, cognitive, social, and emotional development. Where possible, I will draw on empirical research that helps document this claim. However, because of the anthropocentric focus described earlier, the research base is inadequate for most generalizations about children’s relationships with companion animals. Noting this, I will hypothesize about potential developmental significance in areas not fully investigated to date and suggest fruitful research avenues for future study. I conclude with some cautions that point to the challenges inherent in biocentric studies of development.

Although most studies of pets in children’s lives have understandably focused on social and emotional aspects, there are intriguing indications that companion animals also may play a role in perceptual, cognitive, and language development. Therefore, I begin with these more speculative areas.


The great scholar Eleanor Gibson’s work on perceptual development (1988) provides a starting point. In her theory of perceptual affordances, infants extract knowledge through looking at, hearing, feeling, tasting, and acting on objects, thereby discovering what objects “afford,” or the “what-can-I-do-with-this?” of things. During the first year of life (precisely when is still debated), infants distinguish between the movement of living beings and the movement of inanimate objects. For example, 7-month-olds register a surprised expression if they see an inanimate object, such as a block of wood, appear to move without any force applied to it, but they are not surprised when a person initiates movement (Spelke, Phillips, & Woodward, 1995). This study has not been replicated with a moving nonhuman animal. In Gibson’s terms, living beings, such as a live cat, have fundamentally different affordances than do objects such as a stuffed toy cat of the same size and shape.

There is some evidence that the affordances of companion animals are perceptually interesting to young children, sustain their attention, and motivate their curiosity. Aline Kidd and Robert Kidd, who have extensively studied children and their pets, compared how infants and toddlers, ranging from 6 to 30 months of age, behaved toward their pet dogs and cats as compared with a “lifelike,” battery-operated toy dog and toy cat. The babies smiled, held, followed, and made sounds to the live animals, especially the dogs, more than to the toy ones (Kidd & Kidd, 1987). In another study, which, unlike that of the Kidds’, controlled for the novelty of objects, 9-month-olds approached, touched, and Downloaded from abs.sagepub.com at Tel Aviv University on November 24, 2010


looked at a live dwarf rabbit more than a female adult stranger or a wooden turtle that moved, made noises, and flashed lights (Ricard & Allard, 1992). As a final illustration of the affordances of living animals, consider the findings of Nielsen and Delude (1989), who observed how 2- to 6-year-olds in their day care or kindergarten classrooms responded to a variety of live animals—a Mexican, redlegged tarantula; a 2 ½-month-old, English, angora rabbit; a mature cockatiel;

and a 5-year-old, female, golden retriever dog—as well as two realistic stuffed plush animals—a dog and a bird. The children ignored the stuffed animals (80% never looked at them), but the live animals, especially the dog and bird, were powerful stimuli. Seventy-four percent touched the dog, which was in a sit-stay position, and 21% kissed the dog. More than two thirds talked to the bird.

The perceptually intriguing affordances of living animals may well stimulate children’s learning, particularly about the characteristics and needs of animals (including other humans and themselves), or what psychologists term “naïve biology” (Carey, 1985). In support of this, Japanese kindergarteners caring for pet goldfish, as compared with their classmates, better understood unobservable goldfish biology, as shown by their more accurate answers to questions such as, “Does a goldfish have a heart?” The goldfish raisers also reasoned more accurately about other species, using analogies from goldfish care. One child explained that a baby frog could not stay the same size forever because “the frog will grow bigger as my goldfish got bigger” (Hatano & Inagaki, 1993).

Although this study did not measure the relation between goldfish raising and understanding of death, it is possible that caring for companion animals promotes more elaborated and more accurate ideas about life and death.

Why do companion animals, indeed all animals, present such good learning opportunities? In the words of Hatano and Inagaki (1993), a living animal presents “inherently occurring variations in its critical parameters” (p. 126). In other words, animals are predictably unpredictable. To the observing child, animal behavior embodies what Piaget (1969) argues is the engine of all learning: cognitive incongruity, moderate discrepancy from established schema, and novel information. Moreover, for many children, companion animals are likely to be powerful motivators for learning, for at least two well-established reasons: (a) children learn and retain more about subjects in which they are emotionally invested4 and (b) children’s learning is optimized when it occurs within meaningful relationships (Vygotsky, 1978).


Most research and theoretical attention to companion animals in the lives of children has focused on these domains of development. Considerable evidence documents that companion animals are important affective ties that many children rank among their most intimate (Melson, 2001). For example, when asked to name the 10 most important individuals in their lives, 7- and 10-year-olds Downloaded from abs.sagepub.com at Tel Aviv University on November 24, 2010 Melson / CHILD DEVELOPMENT AND HCAB 35 included, on average, two pets (Bryant, 1985). Establishing the importance of companion animal ties is an essential precondition to exploring their functions

for socioemotional development. To illustrate, I briefly review two functions:

social support and nurturance.


Hundreds of studies identify lack of human social support as a significant risk factor for physical and psychological problems, especially for vulnerable groups of children and adults (Cohen & McKay, 1984). There is evidence that many pet-owning children derive emotional support from their pets. In a sample of 7- and 10-year-olds in California, Bryant (1985) found that pet owners were as likely to talk to their pets about sad, angry, happy, and secret experiences as with their siblings. In interviews with a sample of Michigan 10- to 14-year-olds, 75% said that when upset, they turned to their pets (Covert, Whirren, Keith, & Nelson, 1985). In a study of 68 5-year-olds in Indiana, all about to enter public schooling, 42% spontaneously mentioned a pet when asked, “Who do you turn to when you are feeling sad, angry, happy, or wanting to share a secret?” (Melson & Schwarz, 1994).

Children appear to discriminate among the support provisions of different relationships; when comparing parents, friends, and pets, elementary school children considered ties with pets most likely to last “no matter what” and “even if you get mad at each other” (Furman, 1989). In an indication that using pet support may have adaptive value, parents of those 5-year-olds who turned to their pets for support rated them as less anxious and withdrawn as compared with same-age children who did not use pet support but had pets available within their homes (Melson & Schwarz, 1994).


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