Adventures in Parenthood–Start with Animals (first posted 4/1/2010)

Yesterday, we took our son Ben to the Bronx Zoo. The highlight was when we went to the Congo section and saw the gorillas. They are behind glass partitions and they seem to have a lot of trees and forest to move around. I hope they’re happy there–they don’t seem hostile or agitated, and they move around in the back where the trees are or sometimes come up to see the crowds.

Ben seemed a little unsure about this, but he observed other people enjoying this and started to relax. My wife took him to the front, and luckily one of the larger, and possibly older, gorillas came right to the glass. He looked at us and the crowd looked at him. Ben did not smile, but he did not seem to be afraid either. He seemed fascinated, and I was glad he could have this experience of looking at this gorilla close up, where they could both stare into each other’s eyes.

This theme of animals also corresponds with Ben’s room, where we have photographs we purchased at Ikea. Each photo has two animals (two little raccoons, two tiger cubs and two monkeys), peering out together, chewing on a stick together or with their arms around each other. We bought these pictures before Ben was born. We liked the way they looked, but we also hoped that he could start sharing our love for animals.

Ben has also had a chance to interact a lot with our cat Marcel (pronounced Mar’ tzel). It’s natural for Ben to try to grab Marcel. Fortunately, Marcel is patient with Ben, though he may show his displeasure by moving away. Most importantly, we always pay careful attention when Ben is with Marcel–before Ben was born, we heard horror stories about cats scratching toddlers’ eyes out.

Besides helping Ben’s immune system develop by being exposed to a little dirt, that Marcel always seems to carry on him, we think we are teaching Ben sensitivity. Through his interactions with our cat, Ben has had to learn that the cat can feel pain, just like he does. I strongly believe you can find out a lot about people by observing how they treat animals. Likewise, for someone new in the world, it seems possible to give them their first lessons on compassion, sensitivity, understanding and empathy with an animal, such as a pet dog or cat, in our case.

As toddlers, they may not at first understand that other people, or other creatures, can feel different emotions. I think of his experience with Marcel, and other animals, as training wheels for social development, to empathize and understand people. Of course, we also value his appreciation of animals.

For anyone who has a cat and a toddler, I strongly advise extreme caution, as a cat can get startled or feel trapped, when your toddler wants to grab or hug your cat. Also, each cat is different–some are better at adapting to children. However, if you can manage your cat and teach him/her how to react and keep your toddler from getting too rough, there could be a payoff for your child’s development.

But if you can’t have a pet, I strongly recommend more than one trip to the zoo, especially where your child or children can see animals close up and meet eye to eye.

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