As people continue to be spending a lot more time at home there has been a huge increase in the amount of families getting a pet. On the surface this can be a great thing. Children adore animals and they can reap huge rewards from spending time with them. But animals are sentient beings and deserve to be treated with the utmost respect and understanding, just like children. Finding a balance to family life, which involves young children and animals can be challenging. So what is the Montessori approach to family pets and children’s behaviour?
Children’s brain development
Firstly a little bit about young children and how their brains work; because having age appropriate realistic expectations is key to having harmony at home between children and animals. If we take into account the age of the child and make sure that our approach is appropriate to where they are developmentally, then we can help them learn to be gentle and respectful to animals over time and not punish them unduly when they are unable to do so.
I see so many posts on Montessori forums asking ‘why does my child not listen when I tell them to be gentle with the cat or dog’. Young children don’t refuse to listen or throw a tantrum because they’re naughty, manipulative, or deliberately trying to irritate us. They behave this way because their brains are underdeveloped and they don’t have the same emotional regulation abilities and impulse control as adults. Simply put, to expect them to be able to control themselves consistently and listen is to misunderstand them and does them a disservice.
On a practical note, regardless of whether your child is 3 or 6 years old, think carefully before leaving them alone with an animal and always make sure that the animal can escape when they need to. Animals need to have a safe space where they can go and be quiet when needed. A room with a baby gate or door which can be closed when needed is useful. Some people chose to use pet crates as well. Whatever works is fine. It's about giving the animal space to feel safe and secure when they need it.
This is especially true of older pets who can find the noise and unpredictably of young children extremely stressful and overwhelming. Just like young children, they can experience sensory overload and have a meltdown to express their distress. Whereas a child may throw a tantrum, an animal in distress is likely to bite or behave in some other way that is a risk to those around them. There can be many unnoticed behavioural signs that animals display before they get to this point, but if owners (and especially young children) don’t know what they are this leads to problems.
Essentially it is very difficult to expect young children to be consistently gentle with animals. You do have to create a safe space for both and also just keep modelling gentle hands; however supervision is always encouraged and as they grow up they will learn more.
As they get older, teach them to recognise animal behaviour signs and to respect when animals wish to be left alone. Teach children never to go up to a dog in the park unless permission from the owner has been sought. Involve the child in looking after the animal and model the behaviour you want to see, this includes how you talk to your animals if they’re being mischievous as children pick up on this. Think about getting some family friendly training so you all learn together about how to look after your pets.
You can treat this situation in a similar way to how you may approach toys being treated roughly. If a child is throwing something that shouldn’t be thrown you might say “I can’t let you throw this. I’ll put it here. You can throw this instead.” With animals you can change that “Cats/dogs like gentle hands.” “You can pet the cat/dog like this (then model the behaviour).” I would chose your timing for doing this wisely. Chose times when both animal and child are not hungry or tired.
Young children's understanding of empathy is still developing and so their behaviour can seem cruel at times. They don’t fully understand yet that their pulling fur will hurt the animals. Be patient. If your child does not respond to your words and modelling, you can say “I can’t let you touch the cat/dog like that. I am going to pick you up and move you somewhere safe.” If they cry then acknowledge their feelings, “you are sad. You wanted to pet/play with the cat/dog. We will try again later.” Then try again later and offer a reminder of the expectation ahead of time, perhaps with a little demonstration on how you want the animal to be handled.
Calm direction on the part of adults, consistency, follow through, compassion and patience. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. They will get there in the end, but expecting a fast result is only going to cause frustration.
Loss of a family pet
Sadly, a reality of having family pets is the knowledge that at some point you will be faced with losing them. It can be extremely challenging to deal with such situations, especially if you've had to make a tough decision to put the animal to sleep for example. I think everyone would agree that the love and companionship that animals bring is worth the sorrow but if you're in a position where you're facing losing your pet then I hope these words will help. I've used a cat as an example below.
Unfortunately, there is no specific Montessori approach to dealing with death. In line with respectful parenting techniques a Montessori aligned approach would be to answer your child's questions honestly (in an age appropriate manner) and acknowledge their feelings, by saying something like “you really miss Kitty, it’s so hard, we miss her too.”
Normally I would recommend you be really honest with your little one about where the cat has gone, but having a pet put to sleep is confusing enough for adults, and so in this particular case I would not take them with and would omit that detail and say that they died of whatever illness she had. Saying they went to sleep or were put to sleep can leave a child confused and frightened. The eyes do not close when an animal is euthanised, which is very upsetting and disturbing, even when you’ve been told about it prior.
There’s a wonderful book called Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children by Bryan Mellonie which is great for helping word things so that your communication is kind and yet clear and factual and won’t leave your daughter confused. It's a book we've read many many times and continue to do so. I think it's one of those books that everyone with children should have.
Lifetimes is a moving book for children of all ages, even parents too. It lets us explain life and death in a sensitive, caring, beautiful way. Lifetimes tells us about beginnings. And about endings. And about living in between. With large, wonderful illustrations, it tells about plants. About animals. About people. It tells that dying is as much a part of living as being born. It helps us to remember. It helps us to understand. Lifetimes is a very special, very important book for adults and children. It's a book that explains beautifully that all living things have their own special Lifetimes.
An example is how to approach conversations with your child would be to say something like ‘Kitty died from (name of illness). Her body was too ill to stay alive and she died’. You could then say something like ‘We are all very sad about her dying, would you like to talk about it, or draw a picture of how you feel?’ Art can be very helpful to young children to help them express how they feel when their vocabulary and emotional literacy is still limited. I would also make sure that your child feels safe, by reassuring them that whatever illness the animal had, cannot spread to anyone else. Let them know that you are all safe.
Young children very much live in the moment and my own experience (sadly twice in the last year) was that within a short time my son had moved his attention onto something else and wasn’t upset. I asked several times if he missed our cat and dog and he said no he didn’t. It’s been nearly a year since we lost our cat, and sadly very recently we lost our dog. I was pleasantly surprised to hear my son point at a photo of the cat the other day and say his name and speak fondly of him. My son is almost 4 and is still processing the recent loss of our dog. It's been a very different experience with him being older, and although he doesn't seem upset on a daily basis, I can tell from conversations that a lot is going on in his head. I can see also, that he's concerned with how myself and my partner are coping with the loss, which shows a marked development growth from last time.
So, in conclusion, be realistic in your expectations. If your child is still only 3 or 4, then it will likely be at least a couple of years before they really begin to understand what gentle means in a consistent fashion. They may show gentleness a lot of the time but if they’re tired, hungry or overwhelmed etc then that will likely disappear. This isn’t a conscious choice by the child to be mean to the animal. It’s simply down to their brains being immature and their ability to control themselves being under developed. You have to act as their emotional regulation until they are able to. Think about both animals and children and do what’s needed in your home to keep both safe and allow them to enjoy each other without worry.
Co-authored and edited by Mie Mari Sløk Rusdal and Jude Saffron
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