Children and Animals

Last week, an article titled “A Child’s Wild Kingdom” was front and center in the N.Y. Times Sunday Review.  Author Jon Mooalem asks, “Why do our kids still have imaginary animal friends?”  He refers to his child’s nursery school where each class is given an animal name, and notes how insistently our culture connects kids and wild creatures.  Not only are typical preschools animal-centric, but a majority of children’s books have animals in them in one way or another.

The director of the Center for Biological Diversity is quoted as saying, “Right when someone is learning to be human, we surround them with nonhumans.”  Mooalem offers some scientific explanations, citing studies showing that from infancy on children seem drawn to other creatures. These studies provide evidence for the theory that human beings are inherently attuned to other life-forms. 

Evolutionary explanations point to young children acquiring fears of spiders and snakes more quickly than fears of human manufactured dangers like guns.  If you are an infant or toddler spending a lot of time on the ground it pays to learn quickly to fear snakes and spiders. Psychologists point to children fixating on animals in their imaginative lives.  A majority of children when asked to tell a story will tell one about animals.  Also a majority of children’s dreams, between the ages of 3 and 5, are about animals.

Mooalem believes that we also foist animals on our children.  He writes that “adults have always tended to see kids and animals as vaguely equivalent, or at least more like each other than like us.”  He quotes Freud’s point that “Children show no trace of the arrogance which urges adult civilized men to draw a hard-and-fast line between their own nature and that of all other animals.”   The point is that human infants who don’t yet speak and appear governed by their instincts, may seem more like animals than adult humans.  The problem Freud saw was that socializing children means molding their wildness into humanity.  To put it another way, becoming civilized meant that the primitive, animal like qualities of young children had to be brought under control, or tamed.

This brings us back to the point made earlier, that just when someone is learning to be human we surround him with nonhumans.  And that may suggest the real reason that adults turn to children’s love of, and affinity to animals as a way of promoting that humanizing, socializing process.  The article’s author, himself, points out that the animals in children’s books are usually just stand-ins for people.  Many life experiences that children have, problems they face, and things required of them, are presented through stories about animals.  Becoming socialized has its difficulties for children.   Children can identify with situations the animals are in and learn from the solutions the animals arrive at (not always ones with which we, as parents, agree). 

Children can enjoy and identify with the animal behavior in these stories while maintaining a safe distance because it is not about them. For example, think of the popular and beloved “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie”.  A boy gives a mouse a cookie which leads to the mouse asking for a glass of milk.  This leads in turn to a request for a straw, a mirror, scissors, and a broom.  Next the mouse wants to take a nap, have a story, draw a picture, and hang his drawing on the refrigerator. Of course that ends with his wanting a glass of milk and then a cookie to go with it.  So much fun!  So like the way a child might like to behave, yet something mom might not be as likely to go along with in reality.

In a series such as the Berenstain Bears, the kids face a problem which they turn to  Papa Bear to solve.  Papa wants to teach some aspect of the art of living and offers a solution which makes the problem worse.  It remains for Mama Bear to straighten it all out.  The books have been criticized for their gender stereotypes, including Papa as bumbling and Mama as nagging but all knowing.  These have long been cultural images portrayed in the media and elsewhere, which hopefully we are leaving behind.  Nevertheless, while children are offered the solutions to problems, they also have an opportunity to safely enjoy dad’s failings, and be mad at mom’s criticism and expectations of them.

Many of the children’s books that tell stories involving animals enable children vicariously to enjoy the kind of adventures they are not likely to have, or life situations they are likely to face.  Mooallem, himself, says in conclusion that because these animals command our children’s attention, “we use them to teach our children basic lessons of kindness or self-possession or compassion – to show our kids what sort of animals we’d like them to grow up to be.” 

In short, we use animals to help children become human.

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