Let's Talk ... Children and Cats
"Be gentle with the kitty."
I must have repeated that phrase dozens of times when my nieces -- who were then just barely into toddlerhood -- visited my house.
I remember gently guiding the girls' tiny hands, teaching them how to stroke my cats' fur without grabbing and where to pet them to create those delightful purrs.
"See?" I'd tell the little one sitting in my lap. "The kitty is purring. That means she's happy."
As my nieces grew into preschoolers, I began to see how keenly they observed their environment and yearned to be close to all creatures. And of course, they still really, really wanted to pet the kitties! Sometimes they just couldn't resist squealing in delight or chasing after a cat, which naturally resulted in a hiss or a quick disappearing act — and girls with very sad little faces.
It occurred to me that this would be a great time to not only work with the "take your turn and share" skills they were learning, but to help them understand what they were observing. I'd point out to them things like, "Do you see how Siouxsie's eyes are really big? Do you see that her body is all stiff? That means she's kind of scared."
Kids understand things like being scared, and my gentle-hearted, animal-loving nieces certainly didn't want to frighten Auntie JaneA's cats.
"Do you know what to do when a cat is scared?" I'd ask the girls.
And my second-youngest niece, C. (I'm using her initial because I don't have her parents' explicit permission to use her name), would say in a very serious voice, "Leave her alone?"
And I'd tell her, "That's right. For now, let Siouxsie be. If you sit quietly, I know she'll come up to you and let you pet her."
Kids understand things like patience and gentleness — probably a lot more deeply than many adults give them credit for. Patience is certainly tough for young children, but I was always impressed by how hard my nieces tried to be patient and resist the urge to run after my cats.
Young children's hearts are naturally open, and I believe they hunger for an understanding of how to relate to others ... including animals.
My nieces are among the greatest joys of my life. It's been a pleasure and a privilege to watch them grow into young women. And as for C., she's become a wonderful homesteader's daughter, helping her parents to care for baby goats, chicks, goslings, piglets — and dogs and cats, too.
The last time I asked her, she told me she wants to be a veterinarian when she grows up.
I like to think I had a part in helping C., and all my nieces, learn how to look and listen to what animals are saying through their body language. When children understand that animals are living creatures with feelings, thoughts, and needs, they're much more likely to see animals as part of the family rather than something to be disposed of when the next cool thing comes along. They also learn compassion and kindness.
I believe that intelligent choices driven by compassion and kindness will prove to be the salvation of the world. It's up to all of us to help teach the children in our lives those crucial lessons, and one of the best ways to do so is by allowing them to share their lives with a feline companion.
What do you think? What sort of relationships do the children in your lives have with cats (or any pets, for that matter)? What have you learned from watching children interact with cats? And what do you see as the greatest benefit of allowing children to live with, and learn from, their animal companions?