Well, make them do chores, obviously. That’s just science.
But also: Get a dog.
Maybe this sounds ridiculous — especially if you’re working from home right now, and trying to maintain a bit of order in the midst of chaos.
In fact, literally as I write this, I’m sitting in my home office just waiting to be interrupted. The kids are yelling outside. I’ve got deadlines I need to meet. It can be a struggle.
It’s like: Hmmm, what’s the last thing we might want to add to this mix right now? I know, a puppy!
But if you find yourself thinking about this idea (I admit, I have been) — and especially if your kids have been asking you, but you’re hesitating — you’ll find this analysis very interesting.
I’ve gone back and looked at a string of scientific studies examining what skills and attributes the habit of taking care of dogs does for kids.
And I have to say: the argument is pretty compelling.
Let’s set the stage. There’s a famous longitudinal study called the Harvard Grant Study, that spans more than 80 years, and that concludes there are two key things that people need in order to be happy and successful in life.
The first is love.
The second is work ethic.
We’ll cover the second need first. I’ve written before that the best way to encourage kids to develop work ethic during their childhoods is to require them to do chores. I stand by that.
But when we talk about love, we really mean relationships. As Dr. Robert Waldinger, a Harvard psychiatrist who ran the Harvard Grant Study for years, memorably put it:
“The lessons aren’t about wealth or fame or working harder and harder. The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”
Enter the dogs.
Writing in the journal Nature this summer, scholars from the University of Western Australia said they analyzed data covering 1,646 households over three years, specifically with children aged 2 to 5.
The overall results?
“We found that pre-school children with a family dog were less likely to have conduct problems, peer problems, and had a lower overall difficulties score than children from non-dog-owning families, after adjusting for socio-demographic factors and child screen and sleep time,” the study authors wrote.
Moreover, young kids with dogs wound up with better self-esteem, “improved empathy towards peers,” and “higher levels of personal responsibility and autonomy” than kids without dogs.
It’s not just the fact of having a dog that adds benefits, the researchers theorize. Instead, as you might imagine, it’s more about the habits of playing with the dog, and helping to take care of it.
Specifically, “pre-schoolers who walked with their dog at least once a week or played with their dog at least three times a week had significantly higher prosocial behaviors than those who did not,” the researchers found.
You can see where we’re going with this: Having a dog as a child leads to more prosocial behaviors; more prosocial behaviors leads to better relationships and even love, as an adult.
Caveats? Of course, there’s the whole “correlation vs. causation” factor; it’s possible that families with dogs often engage in some other activity that happens to increase prosocial behaviors.
But if you’re on the fence, and you’re thinking about adding a dog to the family, and you have young kids who really want you to? It’s instructive.
The pandemic, and the chaos, and the notion of a big portion of our country having to work from home indefinitely will eventually come to an end.
The benefits your kids might get from having a dog, however, might just last a lifetime.