By Erik Ryken
We've seen the bumper stickers saying, "My kids have four legs." Many of us connect with the sentiment, remembering all of the mixed emotions our pets have put us through. We have seen them as puppies and we've seen them in need of rescue from dire situations.
We've seen them make messes, spill and chew up our treasured belongings, and we've put up with their unappeasable attitudes. We've also seen them greet us with as much joy as we can imagine. We hug them, even if some scientific studies suggest not to. Even the largest of dogs -- think small horses -- make the tiniest possible spots on our sofas into their spaces for cuddling us on our sofas.
Despite this time-honoured connection, some are offended by pet owners calling themselves pet parents or referring to their dogs as children. You may have seen a recent opinion piece on the topic.
What's the harm?
Our hearts are frequently stolen by internet appearances of inter-species friendships and baby animals being taken in by other species. Humans aren't the only animals who choose to parent other creatures. It really comes down to love, which comes in the form of friendship, and this is arguably a fundamental feature of good parenting.
We don't simply have a relationship based on feeding them; dogs care about us. It would be negligent to dismiss the love they feel for us (they do love us back). They notice when we're in distress, and try to care for us.
It's a pretty grim view of pets to believe that they only care for us as a source of feeding. We could take this same view to children -- they are dependents -- but we know that good parenting takes a lot more than a relationship based on simply feeding, clothing, and housing children. It takes genuine care.
Isn't there also some differentiation in the way people take care of their pets? A pet owner might rightfully view the treatment and care that they provide to be just as devoted as it could possibly be to a child. Let's not forget that not everyone can or wants to raise children.
Why keep someone from calling their dog their baby?
Parenthood takes many forms, and what makes good parenting is up for its own debate. There is no shortage of judgement on these features of life. Maybe the parallels between how we raise children and how we raise companion animals can bring people closer to agreement. Some researchers, for example, have applied categories of parenting styles to better understand habits of diet in parenting.
Whatever your stance on terms like dog baby or pet parent, you can't ignore the meaning that dogs have in people's lives. They may be our oldest friends, but we also raise them, bringing them closer to the status of our children. At the cognitive level, mothers who view images of their own children display comparable reactions to those of their dogs. We covered this study here.
Let's celebrate the work of good parenting and not shame people for devoting their care to companion animals. People don't need to give birth to be good parents! Having a pet in the family can also benefit a child, teaching them, early on, how to take care of others.
If you take pride in the term pet parent, we say all the power to you.