Animals as children, children as animals

A cat and dog, the two most popular animals ke...

I read a newspaper article recently that discussed the vast sums of money people are now spending on their pets. When once pets were put down with barely a thought if they developed a serious medical condition, their lives are now often extended by the kind of expensive surgery that humans have. They can  have hip or knee replacement operations, surgery for cancer and even drugs to treat separation anxiety. Many thousands of dollars are spent on these kinds of treatments.

Dogs and cats are also now commonly given human names. Once their monikers related to their appearance (Spot, Fluffy, Blackie) or were specific to their species (Rover, Fido and so on). Now there are Jeremys, Poppys, Ruperts and Emilys galore among the companion animal population.

Companion animals have become thought of for many people as ersatz family members and are treated as such: given clothes, special accessories, beds, gifts for birthdays and Christmas. Puppies attend ‘puppy preschool’ to be trained in compliant behaviour.

When pets are anthropomorphised in such a way, they are portrayed as babies or young children rather than as adult humans. Young children, for their part, are often portrayed as animalistic. Debates often appear on the web or in the letters columns of newspapers concerning what kinds of public spaces babies and young children should be allowed to occupy.

To give one example, a discussion in the online version of a newspaper last year concerned the issue of crying babies in aeroplanes. The discussion was sparked by the findings of a survey of Australian travellers which found that the vast majority voted for infants and young children and their parents to be segregated on overseas flights. An opinion piece in response to the survey argued that travellers should be tolerant of infant behaviour on planes and have empathy for their long-suffering parents. Hundreds of responses from readers to this piece were posted, many of which complained of the behaviour of children and criticised their parents for choosing to even bring them on the flight.

Other debates have concerned whether young children should be banned for cafes, and alternatively arguing that dogs should be allowed to accompany their owners to more cafes.

Underlying these debates are assumptions concerning the civility of these small humans, their inability to regulate their bodies and emotions, their propensity to annoy other patrons because they fail to measure up to adult standards of behaviour. The notion of the infant and young child as requiring taming like a wild animal is frequently expressed in such forums, and also in some texts on child-rearing. Child-rearing strategies are sometimes directly equated to those used to train domestic animals such as dogs. A popular Australian childcare book was entitled Toddler Taming, its title implying that very young children, like wild or uncontrolled animals, require ‘taming’.

Both animals and children are viewed as being closer to nature and further from the civilised body of adults as a consequence. This positive association of nature with the young child’s body draws upon the valued meanings of purity, authenticity and lack of artifice. However an alternative discourse of nature represents it as ‘bad’: as uncivilised, uncontrolled, wild and requiring domestication. The uncivilised young infant child is deemed to require training in bodily deportment to render them more fully human: manners, toilet training, sleep training, eating habits and other personal bodily habits are all taught as part of the civilising process (as outlined by Norbert Elias), to induct children into adult society and take on the status of the civilised adult.

It has been argued by some sociologists that in developed countries children are now considered more precious, more valuable, than at any other time of human history. Yet they also continue to be considered as inferior to adults, lacking appropriate decorum, spoiling adult spaces. When behaving well, they are adored — when misbehaving, they are reviled. They offend adult sensibilities concerning behaviour in public places. These reactions suggest a deep ambivalence towards young children in developed societies.

In the meantime, dogs and cats are also considered more precious and childlike, moving in their symbolic status from simply animals to beloved member of the family. Strangely, in some instances they have become viewed as more civilised, as more deserving of occupying adult space than are children.

Further reading:

Ulrich Beck and Elizabeth Beck-Gernsheim (1995) The Normal Chaos of Love. Cambridge: Polity.

Chris Jenks (1996) Childhood. London: Routledge.

John Knight (ed) (2005) Animals in Person: Cultural Perspectives of Human-Animal Intimacies. Berg.

Deborah Lupton (2012) Precious, pure, uncivilised, vulnerable: infant embodiment in the popular media. Available at http://hdl.handle.net/2123/8201.

2 thoughts on “Animals as children, children as animals

  1. I have kept koi for about 20 years and …ah-hemm … am patron of the Australian Koi Association. Gawping visitors can be divided into two groups: those who look wondrously at them and ask “do you have names for them?” and those who never ask that. I don’t and it has never occurred to me to name fish. They actually don’t inspire affection. I’ve never once talked to them. I do have favourites and when I regularly sell those whose stars have fallen in my firmament, I do confess to hoping that they go to “a good home” at the koi auctions where I sell them. You would love to observe the auctions Deborah. I’ll take you one day.

  2. Pingback: Infant embodiment: how we think about and treat babies | This Sociological Life

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