Animals Teach Kids about Empathy

Written by Vicki Stringfellow Cook

It has been established that animal cruelty, child abuse, and domestic violence are related.  But what can we do to address these connections? Teaching empathy to children is one strategy that is gaining support among experts.

Research has clearly shown that when animal abuse occurs, women and/or children are also frequently at risk.  According to FBI profilers, psychiatric professionals, law-enforcement officials, and child advocacy organizations, people who hurt animals may eventually direct violence toward humans.

Evidence has also shown that a child’s attitude toward animals can predict future behavior.  Reports about several highly publicized school shootings indicate that the young killers had abused or killed animals before turning on their classmates.

Cruelty to animals is considered one of three symptoms that predict the development of a psychopath, and it is included as a criterion for conduct disorder by the American Psychiatric Association.

People who are capable of such acts have a severely underdeveloped sense of empathy – they lack the ability to comprehend or care about the distress or agony that they are causing.  Without empathy, it is easy to think of others as unfeeling machines.

Teaching kindness and respect for animals is the first step in teaching children empathy.

Many animal welfare organizations promote the concept of teaching children empathy.  In 2007, the Doris Day Animal Foundation published a report entitled The Empathy Connection, which states that empathy is a basic skill that every child deserves and needs to learn.

Other organizations that promote educating children about empathy and compassion toward animals include the American Humane Association, the ASPCA, and the Humane Society of the United States.

Empathy training is also becoming more common in schools throughout the country.  One program initiated in Boulder, Colorado by Ellen Mackey is modeled after Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots program.  The concept of the Roots and Shoots program is that every individual can make a difference and all people need to work together to foster respect and appreciation for animals, people, and the environment.

Another program offered by the Humane Society of Arizona uses the Six Pillars of Character from the Character Counts program to teach kids about having empathy and compassion for animals – and for each other.  Dr. Kris Haley, Manager of Humane Education, believes teaching children kindness and compassion toward animals leads to a greater understanding of their relationships with others, and he feels that understanding this connection can be used by schools to address the problem of bullying.

Programs such as these proactively address the issue of violence toward animals and people, and they are an important component in an overall strategy toward reducing the number of future incidents by helping our youth build their capacity for empathy and compassion.

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