The idea that pets love us unconditionally is false. A pet’s love is completely conditional. As long as I love and feed my pet, he will love me back. The degree and type of love you receive from your pet depends on personality and, well, what type of animal it is. Satchmo loved us to the very degree that cats are capable of loving people, which we can probably all agree is one or two degrees less than a dog in a coma. But the love of an animal is based solely and completely on the love and care they receive from their human keepers. You know the old phrase about how many times you can kick a dog before he leaves or bites in response? Yeah, that’s conditional love. Dogs are loyal creatures, but only if you prove yourself worthy of loyalty. If you beat a dog, she will eventually tire of this and bite you. If you stop feeding your cat, she will stop trusting you and will most likely run away from your home and find someone who will feed her. Those are the conditions; it’s called survival.
But see, here’s why we love pets and think that they love us unconditionally: they’re so reliable. The contract is clear, and our pets abide by that contract no matter what. I knew that if I put out food for Satchmo and petted and loved on him when he wanted it, that he would be a friendly and faithful companion. I didn’t have to wonder if he would find some other human and just leave me for no good reason. I didn’t have to worry about projecting an unreasonable image of beauty in order to keep him from getting bored with me. I wasn’t concerned about him turning into a jerk and just ignoring me to hurt my feelings (beyond, of course, the normal range of a cat’s tendency to do this). I knew that as long as I met his expectations of me, he would love me in return. Now, how many humans in your life can you count on to do this? If only humans could be so reliable and trustworthy.
So here is the tricky thing. The love that I and my spouse have for our daughter really is unconditional. We don’t love her because of what she gives us or what she can do for us. There really are no conditions she must meet in order to receive her love; we love her solely on the basis of who she is: our child. Just this morning, when she was mad at us for not letting her run around the house when it was time to get dressed for school, she hit her mother when she picked her up. Of course, we scolded her, told her that hitting is not nice. But we still love her, of course. We discipline our child when she acts out; her actions have consequences. But those consequences never involve losing our love. All children should have a home that is safe and secure in this fashion: that nothing they could ever do will result in losing a ground of love and affirmation.
But eventually all children need to learn about the conditionality of how the rest of the world works. Not everyone in the world is her parent or grandparent. Conceptually, I as an adult know that hitting is bad because it is morally wrong; it hurts another person as an expression of anger whose sole purpose is to cause pain. But developing children don’t have the capacity for abstract ethical reasoning. Children learn that hitting is bad because it gets them in trouble with adults, causes them to lose friends and, in some cases, get hit in return. This is classic conditioning, people, in the form of negative reinforcement.
So this brings me to pets. Children usually love animals. They’re furry and fuzzy, cute and adorable, warm and playful. (This is why we adults love animals, too; they tend to bring out our inner child, don’t they?) Children want to touch animals, pet them, play with them, feel their warmth, cuddle up to them. Children, in essence, want something from pets. But they have to learn to give something in return. Our little girl’s hitting us when she’s mad results in consequences – verbal admonishment, time-out, other negative reinforcements – but we don’t stop loving her. A cat or dog, however, certainly will. When our child moves out into the wider world, this is an important lesson to learn: if you hurt other people, they will turn away from you or, possibly, hurt you in return. And hopefully the positive side of this lesson will be learned and affirmed: if you care for other people, they will care for you in return.
As I’ve pointed out above, the positive side of this lesson isn’t nearly as reliable among people. Which is why having a pet is so wonderful for a child. To have parents who love unconditionally, who can provide a constant safe ground for children to return to after experiencing the frightening consequences of learning to navigate a strange and confusing world, helps them know the boundlessness of true love. But also having a successful conditional relationship helps them to understand how that strange and confusing world works. The contrasts of these two relationships help them, early on, to learn how to look for real love and friendship in the world.
Of course, there are other less lofty reasons that pets are good for children. For one thing, they are fun. Physical touch with other creatures lowers stress, increases a sense of well-being, and gives children a taste of the simple pleasures of uncomplicated companionship. Pets also help children learn responsibility, as they learn to feed, walk, bathe and care for them. But this morning, as we struggled to help a twenty-month-old toddler understand why it’s not good to hit people, I became thankful that in the world outside her home, there are people who are far less invested in her who will teach her concretely why this is not a good idea. And a pet can give her the opportunity to teach her this same lesson about conditional love and expectation in the home, while all the time having her parents and grandparents who will love her no matter how many times she hits or lashes out.
Also, I just want my little girl to experience the pleasure of having a warm cat cuddle up next to her at night and purr her to sleep.