Raising our children isn’t easy – successful parenting takes effort and patience, and there are challenges around every corner. There are always new parenting techniques to try, and we embrace them all – often confusing both ourselves and our children in the process.
If you watch animals with their offspring, parenting seems much simpler. Behaviour is passed down from generation to generation, and the young quickly understand what’s expected of them.
So what lessons we can take from the animal kingdom when it comes to parenting our own kids?
1Show children how they should behave
One of the most important factors of successful parenting is consistency – and that’s exactly what happens in the animal world. The young copy their mothers, quickly learning the behaviour and skills they need to survive. There’s no such thing as a mixed message.
A calm, easy-going cow tends to have a calm, easy-going calf. It watches its mother’s behaviour, copies it, and quickly fits in with the rest of the herd. When foxes rough-and-tumble with their cubs during play, there’s a serious purpose – they’re teaching them how to defend themselves. When a horse stands and licks her foal as it stands contentedly by her side, she’s showing it how to care for another.
We can transfer this to our own world, teaching our children by example and ensuring our messages are clear and non-conflicting.
2Discipline is important
You’ll see a mother dog nip her pups when they get a little too boisterous. A cat will growl at her kittens, a cow butts her calf with her head. They’re not being aggressive – they’re just letting their young know they need to stop whatever it is they’re doing.
With human children, discipline can be a contentious issue and is often confused with punishment. Parents might take away a favourite toy or impose a time-out for bad behaviour, but then give in when their child becomes upset – they don’t want to be ‘the bad guy’.
That doesn’t happen in the animal kingdom. Discipline is about setting boundaries, showing your child what is acceptable and unacceptable, and teaching them how to stay safe. Our children need this guidance while they try and make sense of the world they live in.
3Don’t forget to play
We’re born with an innate sense of fun. A baby will gurgle happily when you tickle his, or her, tummy, or squeal with delight as you give chase on all fours.
The same is true in the animal kingdom – lambs jump and gambol around each other; kittens and puppies will play-fight with their siblings. And, if you watch, you’ll see their mothers sometimes join in – for nothing more than the sheer joy of it.
As we grow, we have other responsibilities – we work, we study, we keep house – and it’s easy to lose touch with our playful side. But we shouldn’t – it’s important to show our children we still have a zest for life, even when we’re shouldering grown-up burdens.
4We are our child’s greatest influence
After an animal gives birth, she looks after her young without help. She feeds them, teaches them, disciplines them. If necessary, she hides them away so they are safe from predators.
This isn’t practical in our world – many parents need to work, for example – but we should never underestimate our role in their lives. Our kids may be in day-care, but that doesn’t mean we abdicate responsibility for teaching them social and practical skills.
Instead, it’s even more important to make the most of the time we have – to play, to guide their behaviour, to show them how to use cutlery or put on their own shoes.
5Our children are more important than anything else in the world
Before my own children were born, I didn’t fully understand the truth of the phrase: “I’d die to protect my kids.” I do now.
The absolute and unconditional love I have for them means that, if they were under threat, I’d willingly sacrifice myself to save them – or, if necessary, kill to protect them. It’s instinctive.
It’s the same in the animal world. If a mother sees you as a threat to her babies, she’ll attack. Preserving their lives is the most important thing in the world to her.
This isn’t a lesson we consciously learn, but watching it in action reminds us how precious our children are. Our job as parents is to nurture them, to ensure they grow up as independent adults and valuable members of their communities.