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What Are Your Word Choices Teaching Your Kids?

As you well know, your children are listening and picking up on things you say—for better or for worse. Trouble can arise when seemingly inconsequential conversations take on a deeper meaning in their minds and influence their view of animals in unintended ways. Since we all want to raise kids who care, here are some things to consider:

Calling Animals ‘It’ vs. ‘Him/Her,’ ‘She/He,’ or ‘They/Them’

A lamp can be referred to as “it” and so can a water bottle. But animals aren’t things—they’re living, breathing, sentient beings (i.e., someone). Referring to animals as “he” or “she” (or “they” if you don’t know the gender) rather than “it” recognizes that they’re individuals, conveying the message that they’re not research tools for us to test our drugs and cosmetics on, consumer products for us to eat or wear, or inanimate objects that we can use for entertainment but rather persons (yes, animals are people, too!) who deserve our consideration.

The reason isn’t because it hurts animals’ feelings when we refer to them as “it”—it’s because the word lessens their worth in our minds. Although no thoughtful person would do this intentionally, it can be a tough habit to break. But once it has become ingrained that “it” is a disrespectful word when referring to a sentient individual, you and your socially conscious youngster will cringe when someone points to your dog and says, “It’s so cute!” or draws attention to a bird and asks, “Is it building a nest?”

Replacing Harmful Idioms

Words can frame our view of reality, which is why identifying and eliminating racist, sexist, homophobic, and ableist words and phrases from our language is a top priority right now. What may be less obvious but just as harmful are the speciesist sayings we grew up hearing that condone disrespect and even violence toward animals and perpetuate a human-supremacist worldview.

Many common expressions, such as “kill two birds with one stone,” “beat a dead horse,” and “bring home the bacon,” have been casually passed down from our own otherwise caring parents and teachers, inadvertently normalizing violence toward animals and hardwiring a false sense of superiority over them. Using animal-friendly language instead can stop this harmful cycle and foster respect for animals—it could even spark a family conversation about the abusive ways in which animals are exploited and how to help them.

Talking About Insects and Rodents

Ditching animal-derived foods and talking about the importance of showing empathy to all is crucial to raising kind kids, but what about when it comes to less popular animals? What happens, for example, when you find a spider in your house or you hear rodents scurrying a little too close for comfort? Squishing bugs or setting out poison or cruel traps to catch and kill small mammals sends the wrong message to kids who are otherwise taught to be compassionate.

Think guests, not pests. That’s not to say that these uninvited visitors are welcome in your home, but be careful not to refer to them as “vermin” or an “infestation.” Instead, explain to your kids why and how animals sometimes wander into or seek refuge in human homes—and show them how to prevent this from happening in the future. One positive aspect of using alternatives to cruel traps and insecticides is that natural remedies are nontoxic and healthier for your small human housemates, too. And if any rodents or insects still make their way in, using humane traps for rodents or gently catching insects with a plastic cup (or using PETA’s humane bug catcher) and then releasing them outside is always an option.

If we want our kids to grow into compassionate, respectful, understanding adults, we need to make sure that they have a foundation free of the speciesist biases that we, too, may have absorbed as children. Becoming aware of these subtleties in our everyday language is a vital step in raising a generation that will truly see animals as deserving of equal consideration.

For Kids