Dear Julie and Joanna,
My six-year-old son loves our kitten. He plays with the kitten appropriately 50% of the time, the other 50% he is playing too rough and carrying the cat around against its will. I don’t think he means it harm, he just loves it so.
I am starting to get frustrated with using the phrase, “We expect you to play gently with the cat!” and showing ways to play properly. We have to tell him multiple times a day and I can see that it is just not working.
Mom of a Cat Lover
Dear Mom of a Cat Lover,
I have a few tweaks to make to your basically sound approach. First, I appreciate that you understand that your son is not harassing the poor cat out of meanness, but rather out of an overabundance of enthusiasm. And that you are giving him information rather than scolding. Let’s just make the information a little more specific, and add another step…take action without insult. After you have secured safety for all, you can help redirect your child with choices and point out the positive with descriptive praise. Here’s how it might go…
Instead of reminding him to “play gently” (what does “gently” mean to a six-year-old after all?) let’s give information:
“I can see the kitty is getting scared. When she lashes her tail like that it means she’s nervous.”
“The kitty is struggling because she doesn’t like to be held. She likes it when you scratch her head like this!”
If he can’t quite bring himself to back off, you can take action:
“I’m putting the kitty in my bedroom for a while. She needs a break for now.”
And then put her in there and lock the door. A simple hook and eye lock on the door can provide safe haven for a beleaguered cat. You can help move your son on to another activity by offering a choice. It can even be a cat-related activity.
“Do you want to make a toy for the kitty? We have feathers, crumpled paper and string.”
“Let’s give the real cat a rest. We can play with your stuffed animal cat or with your trucks.”
You might also take time out to notice and appreciate those times when he is being gentle with the cat. Be sure to use descriptive praise.
“The kitty likes it when you do that. I can hear her purring.”
“Wow, she’s really enjoying that pipe cleaner on a string toy you made for her. Look at her pounce!”
At six many children are not quite old enough yet to exert self-control consistently around such a delicate creature. In fact many adoption groups refuse to adopt out puppies or kittens to families with children under seven.
With a little more time, and your gentle guidance, your son will get there soon!