Pets as social skills teachers, Part 1
Note: This post is part of the It’s Good To Give series, which is sponsored by Milk-Bone. This is the second sponsored post I've done here at Parent Hacks (the first was for the American Cancer Society). I generally stay away from sponsored content, but this campaign, with its focus on service animals, happened to dovetail with my long-standing intention to write about pets as social skills teachers. (Milk-Bone supports the Canine Assistants program.) Now that that my son's homeschooling, I'm seeing our dog's effect on him even more clearly. I feel like it's an important story to tell, and I'd love to hear yours as well.
I love animals. I mean, I REALLY love animals. So getting a pet, along with having a family and buying a house, always seemed to be part of my theoretical grownup future.
Then I had kids. Two creatures that spent much of their time eating, pooping, making noise, and needing stimulation. Add a pet to this picture? No way. My caring for other living beings quota was maxed out. I also happen to be married to Mr. Allergy Man, so living with an animal would mean more detailed housecleaning. Despite the immense pleasure I got out of growing up with a dog, I just couldn't see how we could add another member to our family without pushing one of us -- me -- over the edge.
As my children grew and became more independent, however, my love for animals started elbowing in on my "no pets" reasoning. It goes without saying that the kids wanted a pet...they inherited their animal-loving genes from me. But reason persisted. I wouldn't get a pet unless I was absolutely sure we could provide the love, attention and care it needed to thrive.
Meanwhile, my son was growing more and more stressed at school. Academics weren't the problem; he struggled with the social requirements in the classroom and on the playground. It was obvious that he was bright and full of energy, but the overstimulating environment at school and the growing complexity of peer relationships were more than he could handle. It took us a long time to understand the cause of his growing anger and isolation. But after three schools, several different therapies, and lots of parenting adjustments, we could see that he needed more than a behavioral adjustment -- he needed a place where he could feel safe and loved.
When you're a kid with social skills challenges, humans are frustratingly illogical. People who smile aren't necessarily happy, and teachers (and parents!) make rules but don't necessarily apply them consistently. Trying to "read" what people are thinking or feeling based on visible evidence is a hit-or-miss proposition, and that's stressful for a kid who finds comfort in absolutes.
As my son lost confidence in his ability to make friends and function well at school, he began to withdraw not only from the world at large, but from us. Even my inconsistencies as a parent, normal though they were, disturbed him and eroded his trust in me. What he needed more than anything was a friend he could rely on without fail. A friend he could share his thoughts with, someone who would always be up front about how he felt, someone who would always be there. He needed the kind of unconditional love that came with no expectation.
What he needed...was a dog.
Pet-owning Parenthackers! How has having a pet changed your family life? What advice would you give another parent who's considering getting a pet?