To see a published version of this article on elephantjournal, click on http://www.elephantjournal.com/2016/03/animals-are-the-teachers-children-need-to-see-lifes-lessons/
Every morning, when my daughter sits at the breakfast table, her eyes search the clear horizon outside our french windows. She is looking for our crow who turns up expectantly each morning, waiting for a morsel of egg yolk from her. The days he doesn’t show up, the eggs don’t get eaten, but those days are rare, thankfully.
Children identify with birds and animals. (Mum says eggs are good for me, but I only eat them so that my crow gets some. You see, my crow can be as picky an eater as me!)
Our crow is easy to identify. She has a growth under her beak the size of a golf ball. One morning, we saw her fly to the building across from us with the egg yolk firmly secured in her beak. We saw her feed it to a smaller, delicate crow, and knew at once, that this was her baby. From the very next day, we began to feed her for two.
Children learn to nurture and care for those who are weaker than them and those who depend on them for survival. (If I don’t feed her for two, how will she take care of her baby?)
We have a female rottweiler at home named Lola. Lola gets walked each evening by the kids irrespective of whether they have homework, hobby classes or are just plain tired. Lola begs, cajoles and demands their attention. Lola gets a chewy every time we leave her alone at home, so she doesn’t feel so lonely. Many evenings are spent with Lola and the kids sprawled on the floor, entwined, playful and engaged. Some days she is dressed up as a ghost, other days she is an imaginary giant; lately she has even been seen to be Chewy, from Star Wars. Light saber wars are held, tag is a usual pastime and sometimes when she needs to be reprimanded, it is done with adorable acceptance.
Lola got her first period at 8 months of age. It lasted an entire month.We had to read up on the right care for her during that time. We had to answer 20 questions from the children about why, how, is she fine or sick, etc. It opened such a natural window to discuss fertility, reproduction, gender differences in males and females of species and ofcourse it peaked their curiosity about how this translates for them. And before I knew it, our first sex-education talk was done! And it felt natural and effortless.
Animals put the evolutionary process of reproduction of species into scientific and relevant perspective. Through their experiences, children learn naturally about sex, babies, pregnancy, menstruation and reproduction and there is nothing embarassing or awkward about it. It is amazing how easily they make parallels between humans and animals and come to conclusions that are logical and matter-of-fact. All we have to do is listen, and gently nudge their enquiry in the right direction. (Will I also get my period? Will it pain? How are babies made?)
We have a farmhouse that we visit every fortnight on weekends. At the farm we have 2 dogs, 2 turkey, 3 roosters and many hen, 4 geese, 8 ducks, a cow and a calf, horse and a donkey! Each animal has a name and a character to go with it.
The pair of turkey are the newest additions at the farm. They were purchased from a trader in Mumbai recently and transported to the farm in our car. As they were introduced to the other animals, the kids were concerned about their well-being; as to how they would handle the change and we had many long discussions on taking the right measures to ensure that they settle in well.Handling change is not easy for most of us. Children learn tolerance to change with an open mind that allows room for all outcomes. (Maybe the turkey will fight with the geese, maybe they will be best friends. I hope the dogs don’t chase them and pluck their feathers!)
The first time my son rode our horse Carlos, he was wary. Carlos is adopted and we have no idea about his previous owners, life or living conditions. We just knew from his temperament though that he had been ridden before. Gentle encouragement from us made my son overcome his reservations and he really enjoyed the ride.
It is important to be wary of animals but it’s just as important to overcome baseless fears. As we become adults, our conditioning kicks in and it gets harder and harder to make light of our fears. In childhood, it is much easier. No wonder pet-assisted-recovery is gaining popularity all over the world, especially for medically-sick children. (What if he throws me off? Will I get hurt? Will he bite me? Oh, he likes me!)
My son recently went for an overnight school camp with Grade 4. He told me later, on his return, that he had decided that he would not eat any animals on this trip! We are not vegetarians and we encourage some poultry and fish in our children’s diets regularly. So this came as a real surprise to us!
Caring for our environment and doing our bit to maintain Earth’s ecological balance cannot be taught through documentaries and learning resources alone; however well-made they may be. Animals, when adopted, force us to acknowledge our food choices and how they affect our environment and then, strike the right balance for us, with compassion. He had no problem reverting back to his food habits once he was back from the camp, but the experience of making that choice from within stayed with him for a long time. (I don’t want any chicken to be killed to become my food and I can choose to stay vegetarian if I want to).
Before Lola, we had two dogs and we lost both to old-age eventually. The day Tequila died, we all cried. The next day, we cremated him and prayed for his soul. When Ninyo died, we buried him at our farm and made him a tombstone. Over the years, we have lost numerous rabbits, small birds and on one occasion, a whole batch of 6 geese due to an infectious disease. The children had to learn to accept their passing and let them go.
Letting go and accepting the circle of life and death is getting almost mystical and elusive in today’s world. We fear the pain that comes when we lose a loved one and we try and protect our children from this pain. Allowing them to experience loss of a living being is the precursor to learning how to let go and eventually detach from the pain that death brings. (I didn’t want him to die. We will never get another dog like him. I miss him.)
My husband and my contribution in all these learnings gathered by my children has been miniscule. We have simply led by example and allowed them space to experience, to be. In fact, we have been blown away by their easy compatibility and have learnt to humbly accept both, our children and our animals as our teachers.