How Two-Year Olds Relate to Animals: Birds as Little People or Intelligent Animals
How does a two year old relate to an animal? We know that at first young children attribute the same feelings and thoughts to animals that they attribute to humans. But soon after the animal's lack of human response causes the child to rethink what sort of creature, say, a bird really is. Do we want to dissuade young children from thinking that birds are "happy" when we give them food and "unhappy" when their swing is stuck? Aren't we, in essence, treating the bird as a medium to engender compassion and empathy toward all creatures, including classmates? Yet some educators worry that this anthropomorphic bias clouds the child's observation of what the bird actually does do that is intelligent in its own right, independent of how close it matches human psychology.
Any comment that we make when children observe animals frames our choice on this continuum from bird-as-bird to bird-as-human. In this video we see Carter purse his lips and place them against the class pet parakeet’s cage. The teacher behind the camera frames this as a kiss, perhaps to orient him toward a gentle kindness. Later the children go outside to spread seed for the birds. One of the teachers comments about how happy the birds will be that the seed is there. Earlier the children planned where to place the seed outside, perhaps to maximize the chance that the birds will find it.
What are your preferences? Do you think it valuable to treat birds as birds or birds as little people? What about saying to Carter, "What did the bird do when you blew into the cage?" or, "Do you think the birds will know that the seeds are not little rocks?" Do you think it's okay to frame birds as having human-like feelings and thoughts? Perhaps children could learn even more about life if they learned to respect the intelligence of birds for the things that birds can do that humans cannot do?
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For More Information
Myers, Gene O. (2007). The significance of children and animals: Social development and our connections to other species. West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press.
Myers, Gene O. (1998). Children and animals: Social development and our connections to other species. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Reprinted with the permission of Videatives, Inc. © 2008, Videatives, Inc. All rights reserved.