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PETS CAN BRING OUT THE BEST IN BOYS

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Caring for a pet is a good way for boys to learn how to nurture, says a Purdue University researcher.

Why boys?The researcher, Gail Melson, says girls have an ongoing interest in babies that helps develop their nurturing skills, but boys lose their interest after age 5. However, she says, early studies indicate that after age 5 boys have more ideas than girls about how to care for a pet. They also show more attachment to pets, she says.

"Perhaps, unlike caring for babies, pet care is not associated with gender and is an opportunity for boys to nurture," says Melson, a professor in the department of child development and family studies.

Melson has been conducting research for eight years on how children learn to nurture and how gender differences related to caregiving develop in childhood. Her latest study of 404 parents and 120 children sought to back the belief of many parents that caring for a pet helps a child's sense of responsibility, caring and self-esteem.

"This kind of study doesn't allow us to say that the attachment to the pet is actually causing the empathy or enhancing self-concept," she says, "but we can say there are associations."

If a pet is impractical, Melson suggests that a child tend a garden or a plant, help with a younger sibling or help care for an elderly or disabled person.

"Most children are on the receiving end of care," says Melson. "If they are to learn to be nurturing and caring of others as they become adults, we do think it's important for them to have experiences in being the caregiver."