sealPurdue News

July 2001

New book explores relationship between children, animals

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – More than two-thirds of all American children grow up with pets and are more likely to have a pet in the household than both parents, according to a new book on the role of animals in the lives of children.

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"Why the Wild Things Are," released by Harvard University Press, draws on psychological research, history and children's media over a 10-year period to examine youngsters' many connections to animals and how their experiences may shape them as adults.

Author Gail F. Melson, a professor of developmental studies at Purdue University, became interested in the topic of animals and children while doing research on nurturing.

"I was investigating the ways children learn to be nurturers and what may influence them to become nurturing adults, when a colleague suggested that I look into the connection between kids and their pets," Melson says. "I was really surprised when I couldn't find any research on the subject because therapists have long used animals when working with disabled children and teachers often have small animals in their elementary school classrooms."

Because animals abound in children's literature, television programs, videotapes and computer games, even youngsters who never share their home with a pet usually show a strong interest in creatures of all kinds. Among the topics Melson explores in addition to children's emotional ties to their pets are the cognitive challenges of animal contacts, animal symbols as building blocks of self and cruelty to animals.

"Children are intensely interested in the biology of different kinds of animals – how they are different from that of human beings and from each other," Melson says. "Youngsters also tune in to the moral issues connected to animals and their treatment."

Melson also delves further into her original interest in how nurturing develops in children and where caring for a pet fits into the picture.

"There is an instinct in very young children to care for and be mindful of small, helpless creatures," Melson says. "But when you look at nurturing in relationships between people, it gets divided into gender roles very early. By the age of 3 or 4, children start to see nurturing as primarily a female characteristic, and boys begin to withdraw from those kinds of activities."

Melson says caring for a pet is a gender-neutral responsibility and can be an especially valuable experience for boys who may feel, rightly or wrongly, that other forms of nurturing compromise their masculinity.

"A key component of nurturing is empathy – recognizing that people have different needs," Melson says. "Children are able to recognize that animals have very different needs from their own at a fairly early age, so it makes sense that this may carry over into their relationships with family and peers."

In addition to giving children opportunities to be nurturers and to learn to develop empathy, Melson says pets offer other benefits as well:

• Age-appropriate tasks associated with care and maintenance help children build a sense of responsibility.

• Pets can be a source of support and reassurance when children need a non-judgmental audience for their concerns and fears.

• The presence of non-threatening animals can have a calming effect on people of all ages.

"Animals can be great stress reducers," Melson says. "Studies show that petting a dog or a cat can reduce blood pressure. It's one of the reasons fish tanks are so popular in doctors' waiting rooms."

"Why the Wild Things Are" retails for $27.95 and is available at Barnes & Noble and Border's Book Store outlets nationwide. It also can be purchased from the Harvard University Press Web site or at (

Source: Gail F. Melson, (765) 494-2948,

Writer: Sharon A. Bowker, (765) 494-9723,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

Gail F. Melson's book, "Why the Wild Things Are," shares new insights into the developmental significance of children's relationships with animals. (Purdue News Service Photo by David Umberger)

A publication-quality photograph is available at the News Service Web site and at the ftp site. Photo ID: Melson.wildthings

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