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Raising kids who care

Parents and educators share advice on how to inspire and encourage the next generation of advocates

All Animals magazine, January/February 2017

by Michael Sharp

Encourage kids to follow their natural connection with animals by spending time outdoors. Photo by Ariel Skelley/Blend Images/Getty Images.

As I sit here, cursor blinking atop a blank white document, our house is in chaos. It’s a thrilling, hopeful chaos. But it’s definitely chaos.

There are boxes of unopened diapers stacked on the floor by the television. There is a new crib, waiting to be assembled. And there is a dresser in the living room, still in its box, currently serving as one lucky cat’s jungle gym.

Our first baby is on his way: T-minus 38 days and counting.

So for me, this was a fitting assignment: Explore the question of raising humane families. How do you teach your children to be compassionate to animals? How, and when, do you begin to introduce them to animal issues—issues that, at times, can be tough enough to explain to our adult peers? How, and when, do you begin to show them that they have a voice, and that they can use that voice to make a difference?

I have few answers. My focus right now is on the Big Day, and those hazy, crazy first few weeks, and how exactly I’m ever going to get that dresser up the stairs. But of course I think about it: What’s he going to be like? Will he have my red hair? Will he have his mom’s dance moves? Will he share our love for the cat and the dog who share his house? The challenges, responsibilities and joys of molding another person are something I’m just beginning to grasp.

So let’s turn instead to a few parents whose kids have already done some amazing, generous, kind things for animals. Let’s turn to a few experts who have spent their professional lives designing content and lessons to engage children. What follows is their advice, and the lessons they’ve learned along the way—for raising children to be compassionate citizens who, through small acts or large, bring about a better world for people and animals.

Start at home

“Children will do what you do, not what you say.”

There’s truth in that old saying, notes Stephanie Itle-Clark, a former preschool and kindergarten teacher who went on to become director of learning for The HSUS.

So be aware of the actions you’re modeling. Set an example with how you gently pet your cat, or how you treat your dog as a member of the family. Keep a “bug relocator cup” handy to take spiders and other insects back outside, rather than squashing them.

For many children, that first introduction to animals happens inside the home, or in the yard out front.

“It’s actually one of the best ways for children to see these positive, empathetic, pro-social behaviors as the norm,” Itle-Clark says. “And also to allow these children to practice making those behaviors their own.”

For many children, that first introduction to animals happens inside the home, or in the yard out front. The guinea pig, nibbling on his lettuce. The squirrels jumping from tree to tree. The insect who’s crawled in from the great outdoors. That’s where parents can begin teaching a respect for wildlife and the importance of responsible pet ownership—filling birdfeeders, planting native flowers that attract butterflies, walking the dog regularly, taking the cat to the vet for her annual checkup.

“It’s part of character education,” says Cathy Vincenti, who has written articles for The HSUS’s Kind News children’s magazine for the past 29 years. “It’s helping them develop the character traits of kindness, and compassion, and empathy.”

Inevitably, there will be teaching moments as well—when your daughter chases birds, or your son decides to find out what happens when he pulls the cat’s tail.

“That’s a perfect way,” Itle-Clark says, “for a parent or another caring adult who’s important in that life of a child to step in and say, ‘Oh, I understand that you’re really interested in your cat or those birds. Why don’t we practice some other things that will let us get to know that animal better, without accidentally hurting the animal.’ ”

Photos by Kelly Mayer; Mattias Breiter/Minden Pictures.

Take a trip to your local shelter

Last February, at the state house in Concord, New Hampshire, 11-year-old Lucas Mayer stood up in front of 400 people and spoke out against a proposed bobcat hunt.

When he was done, he received a standing ovation.

“Bobcats never did anything,” he would say later. “They’re just beautiful creatures, and they’re not high on their population numbers. And the way they wanted to kill or trap the animals I just thought was very wrong, and the bobcats didn’t deserve it. No animal deserves it.”

Lucas, who has also made YouTube videos speaking out against the Yulin dog meat festival in China, has always loved animals. Some of that can be attributed to growing up alongside pet guinea pigs and cats—“you feel like a friend’s by your side.” And his mother, Kelly Mayer, points to another important step: When he was 5 or 6, she began taking him to their local shelter—the MSPCA at Nevins Farm in Massachusetts—where they’d hang out with the cats, take the dogs for walks and feed the horses.

“I think that’s a good place to start,” Mayer says. “Because … as sad as it is seeing all the animals there without homes, it teaches them, in a way, compassion to go and spend time with the animals. And that was kind of a starting point for me, to see how Lucas reacted.”

To this day, they still go to the shelter and drop off supplies, like the afghan blankets Mayer makes for the senior cats.

“It makes me feel special,” Lucas says of those trips. “That’s cool, to kind of be able to make a change in their lives. … I kind of picture it as, if I were them, would I rather sleep on a hardwood floor, or would you rather sleep on a comfortable bed? … I’d choose bed.”

Photo by Merrilee Guarini.

Find new experiences

The sun was just starting to set on Cape Cod as Merrilee Guarini and her 11-year-old daughter Mia accompanied staffers from the Cape Wildlife Center out into a small grassy area to release a rehabilitated baby bunny. It was a serene moment, and the joy from the wildlife center staffers was palpable. Mia knelt down next to a volunteer as the young bunny was released. The rabbit hopped out of his carrier, paused a minute, then scampered off.

“It was sort of like a defining moment,” Guarini says, “of, OK, this is what it’s all about.”

It all stuck with Mia, who was visiting the center for a school presentation she was doing on the facility. She’d had her choice of topics, her choice of organizations to highlight, and she’d chosen animals. “They’re so friendly, and I like [animals] because they’re so different from humans,” she says. “And there’s so many different species, and they act so different from each other.”

She’s always been drawn to animals. Growing up around pets certainly helped feed this passion. And her mother, who remembers the kindness her parents showed the stray animals she’d bring home as a child, cites something else as well: “This is probably a no-brainer, but just exposing them to different experiences where they actually interact or see [various animals].”

The family, for example, would regularly visit a local barn for rescued horses and other animals when Mia was younger. She attended camps there as well, hanging out with the animals and helping out around the stalls. The experiences not only helped nurture a natural interest, but they introduced Mia to people who were dedicating their time to helping animals.

They helped Mia realize “there are these people out there, and that’s what they do: They get up every day and that’s what they do,” her mom says. “I think it touched her in a way that she hadn’t really thought about before, seeing it in action like that.”

Photos by Kathleen Conlee/The HSUS; Brandon Wade/AP Images for The HSUS; Michelle Riley/The HSUS.

Gradually introduce animal issues

Hazel Griffin learned about how her dad spends his days at The HSUS long before she learned about the issues her mother tackles there every day. Indeed, their two careers present an interesting range, and another example of the start-in-your-own-backyard approach that many parents use to introduce animal issues.

John Griffin heads urban wildlife services, and when his daughter was about 4, he came to her preschool to help find a solution for the squirrels who were getting into the attic.

“He went to help get the squirrels evicted humanely,” says Hazel’s mother and Griffin’s wife, Kathleen Conlee, HSUS vice president of animal research issues. “So she got to tell her friends about what her dad did to help protect wildlife.” Hazel’s since been out on calls with him, watching him relocate groundhogs and rescue cats. Another time, they spent an evening counting the number of bats who were emerging from a chimney.

“I want her to be outside, and I want her to have the opportunity to see things, without it being forced on her,” Griffin says. “We try to go outside and play, and then notice things. And when she gets interested in it, I try to really go with that.”

Sometimes that can mean focusing on the worm, crawling through the dirt, rather than the hawk, circling high above. “Whatever she takes an interest in … we just try to take a moment to sort of acknowledge that.”

Hazel is 7 now, and Conlee’s gradually started discussing her work to retire chimpanzees from laboratories and end cosmetics testing on animals. She aims to keep it positive, leaving out details that may not be age-appropriate yet. For example, the chimpanzees: “They went from a place where there weren’t very nice places to live, and now they’re going to be out climbing trees.”

And she aims to tie it into Hazel’s life. For example, her shampoo: “We talked about how you can buy products that haven’t been tested on animals. … I use very elementary language. I don’t get into graphic descriptions, but just say, ‘The animals are hurt in the process, and we don’t need to be doing that kind of thing.’ ” From there, she’ll talk about the ways in which people can work to create positive change.

Vincenti says that step is critical. “In Kind News, we try to never leave the children feeling hopeless or unable to do something about an issue. We give them hope by showing them that others are working to help solve the problem, or by empowering the children to take action on their own.”

Photo by Jessica Hill/AP Images for The HSUS.

Teach them how to give back

Shira Zeiberg turned 1 shortly after a devastating tsunami struck the coasts of the Indian Ocean. The Zeiberg family had an older daughter, Brianna, and they didn’t need many new baby supplies for their second daughter. So they asked that guests of Shira’s first birthday party bring donations for a charity rather than gifts.

Years later, the family would circle back on this idea.

“I remember that Oprah used to say, ‘It’s not about the big gives, it’s about the little gives,’ ” says Brianna and Shira’s mother, Charlene Zeiberg. “My whole thing is that all the little gives really add up.”

Have they ever! Through birthday parties, a Halloween costume party and a spring charity event, Brianna and Shira have raised more than $20,000 through myHumane to benefit The HSUS. The parties started when Brianna turned 7. She still received presents from her family, but her parents suggested that maybe she didn’t need dolls or arts and crafts kits from her friends. They left it up to Brianna to choose what she’d like to raise money for, and she picked animals.

A few years later, her younger sister followed suit. “I saw my sister do it, and that made me interested in doing it,” Shira says. “Because I kind of just watched her, and it seemed fun. … Achieving a goal and getting a new goal every single year, I love doing that.”

Shira, now 12, has indeed continued the tradition, holding parties and now volunteering for an organization called Tails, where she helps care for several cats who are up for adoption at a local petsupply store.

“I love doing it,” she says. “Because having animals at home’s always fun, but seeing other animals find homes, that’s amazing.”

Photos by Michele Spires; Kathleen Summers/The HSUS.

Give them choices

Kathleen Summers was at a cookout with friends five years ago, when her son Carter approached her with a question.

“Can I have a hamburger?”

Summers, the director of outreach and research for the HSUS Puppy Mills Campaign, had been a vegetarian when Carter was born. As he grew older, she sat down and explained that she didn’t eat meat because it came from animals. But at the same time, ultimately, she wanted to leave decisions about his diet up to him.

So this moment, at a cookout at the beach, was an important one.

“I didn’t want him to feel forced. I didn’t want him to grow up thinking, oh, this is something my mom makes me do. So he ate that one hamburger—and it’s the only hamburger he’s ever eaten. Once he knew that it was his choice to make, he chose not to eat meat.”

Don’t ever underestimate them!

Well, that dresser finally made it upstairs. And on a routine Thursday, during a checkup, my wife and I got a surprise: It was go time. A blur of a week later, my little redhead sleeps quietly in a yellow rocker. Upstairs, sketches of animals hang on the walls of his nursery. Downstairs, a cat and a dog eye him curiously from across the room. I am in awe.

I really don’t worry about him not loving animals—but I understand better now the role that I have to play, in nurturing his interests, in setting an example. And if Lucas, and Shira, and Mia, and so many others have taught me anything, it’s this: Never underestimate the power of a little kindness. They’ve raised thousands of dollars, testified before state legislators, captured hearts and minds. And with social media, they’re reaching more people than ever before. So let’s leave the final words to the kids themselves.

“My advice for any kids who want to get involved with helping animals is simply this: Listen to your heart!” Lucas says. “No matter how old you are, your voice matters. You can make a difference if you just try.”

“Even if you can’t go somewhere and help out,” adds Mia, “even if it’s your own pets, then I would just go outside and play with them, and care for them—because that’s what animals love to do.”

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