Teaching Children to be Rabbit People

 

Whether you have brought a rabbit home to your child’s house or
have brought a baby home to your rabbit’s house, it is well to remember to:

  • Learn about rabbit behavior/language so you can point out the rabbit’s
    feelings about your child’s actions.
  • Choose a time of day when your child is at “low ebb” for teaching your
    child about the rabbit and for play with the rabbit.
  • Set your child and the rabbit up for success.  Try to anticipate and
    prevent inappropriate interaction by often showing your child how to interact.
  • Try not to get into a pattern of always saying “Don’t…” and “Stop…” to
    your child about the rabbit.  If your child does something inappropriate,
    show and talk about what the child can do with the rabbit.  Offer choices
    for behavior and ask “What could you do…?” Otherwise, your child may see the
    rabbit as something he is always getting in trouble for.
  • Keep the child away from the rabbit for a short time if the child refuses
    to stop a behavior that may hurt the rabbit.
  • Set up the cage so rabbit can get away from the children – a “safe
    zone.”  Use child gates in doorways and/or turn the cage so that the door
    faces the wall with enough room for rabbit but not the child.
  • Put the rabbit in a closed-off room when there are lots of playmates or
    parties.  It is often better if the guests don’t know the rabbit exists.
  • Refrain from having children’s friends in to “see the new rabbit” for the
    first week or so.
  • Show children’s friends where the rabbit lives and how to pet at times
    when only one or two friends visit, then make sure the rabbit is safe during
    the visit.

What You Can Do With Different Ages 

Sitting/Crawling Infants (6-12 months)

Start teaching the idea that the rabbit is to be respected and treated carefully. 

  • Bunny Rule Number 1: Gentle PettingSit on the floor with the child in your lap while you pet and talk
    to the rabbit.  Guide her hand over the rabbit’s head, ears, and upper back.  To prevent fur-grabbing, hold her hand flat or use the back of her hand.  Do this frequently but no longer than 5 minutes at a time.
  • Bunny Rule Number 2: Leave the rabbit alone when he hops away or goes in his cageInterpret the rabbit’s body language for the child -
    “Oops, he didn’t want any more petting. He wants to eat or take a nap.” Prevent the tendencies to chase a rabbit who has had enough and to bang/poke on the cage by explaining that “Chasing him will make him scared of you,” or “Banging on his house scares him.”   Watch your child carefully and make such explanations at the moment before it looks like the child may engage in such behaviors.  Explaining then redirecting the child’s attention works best for this age when inappropriate behavior seems imminent or occurs.
  • Bunny Rule Number 3: Don’t touch droppings and litterboxTeach the child that the litterbox and droppings that may be found on the floor are “dirty.” You may have no problem with picking up the dry droppings with your hand, but you don’t stick your fingers in your mouth!  You may have to change your habits for a while to teach this concept.  A box with a cage floor wire grate works well.

Toddlers (1-2 years)

Continue reinforcing or teach Bunny Rules Numbers 1 through 3 and add Number 4.  Although unintentional, toddlers are capable of doing real harm to a rabbit.  They will need constant supervision and frequent, gentle reminders of appropriate behavior. 

  • Bunny Rule Number 1: Gentle PettingDue to still-developing muscle coordination, toddlers have a hard
    time keeping fingers out of rabbits’ eyes, so you may have to insist on
    two-finger petting or back-of-hand petting. 
  • Bunny Rule Number 2: Leave the rabbit alone when he hops away or goes in his cageClosely supervise children’s interactions with the rabbit.   This is the “age of the stick” when some are prone to bash things with sticks.  Children this age also have a hard time not chasing a rabbit who hops away.  If she chases the rabbit, the rabbit will learn to be scared of her.   Teach respect for the rabbit ending the petting or playing session–”Well, that’s all he wanted to do”–and interest the child in another activity.
  • Bunny Rule Number 3: Don’t touch droppings and litterboxChildren who are interested in toilet-training can understand
    “that is where the bunny poops and pees.”
  • Bunny Rule Number 4: We pet, but don’t pick up the rabbitExplain that “it scares the rabbit to be picked up and both of you could get hurt.”   Explain that Mom or Dad may pick up the rabbit if she needs care.

Explain rabbit language and actions: “Hear her teeth clicking?
  She likes petting.  See her toss the ball?  She’s
playing.”  If the child gets scratched, explain what the child did to scare or hurt the rabbit and show her a better way to act. Redirect loud play to another area–”Look at the bunny.   She doesn’t like the noise.” 

Toddlers love to share their snacks with the rabbit so make sure
rabbits gets only small amounts proper foods and is not overloaded with cereals and crackers.   They also love to help with feeding–scooping and pouring food, taking vegetables and hay to the rabbit.

Two-to Seven-Year Olds

If a 2 year old has grown up with the rabbit, she can have quite a bit of empathy for and knowledge about a rabbit.   Continue or teach Bunny Rules Numbers 1 through 4.  Teach by example instead of by a lot of “No’s,” your child will learn most by watching you.  If interested, the child may help with feeding and play with the rabbit with your supervision. 

Older Children

Continue or teach Bunny Rules Numbers 1 through 4.   Teach by example and setting up situations for success.  Your child may build a friendship with the rabbit by sitting on the floor with the rabbit while doing homework, art work, reading, or watching television.  The rabbit will eventually come to investigate and to be petted.  Older children have lots of other interests and interest in the rabbit may come and go.  The rabbit’s care should continue to be your responsibility, but your child may help with feeding and grooming. 

Teaching Responsibility – Something to Think About

Many parents say they want to get a rabbit for their child to
teach the child some responsibility.  What usually happens is that the child loses interest (not to mention being incapable of sticking to a routine and providing proper care), and the rabbit suffers.  The child, at best, learns to feel bad that she has failed and caused suffering.  At worst, she learns to resent the animal for the nagging that she is hearing from the adult.  Often, the rabbit is given away because “you didn’t take care of it.”  The child learns that life is disposable and that is she waits long enough, someone else will relieve her of her “responsibility.” 

So let your child help with the rabbit, but don’t insist.  If the child appears interested, encourage her; if she becomes bored, let her move on to the next thing, and you carry on with the rabbit.  She learns most of all from watching you–your actions, your tone of voice when you speak to the rabbit, and your attitude.   From this she learns the nuturing (responsible) point of view–the patient waiting, the faithful caring, the joyful appreciation and acceptance of a living creature for who it is, not who you wish it to be. 

“It is not easy to manage young humans and animals, but when parents find solutions, rather than dispose of an animal for convenience’s sake, an important concept is communicated to the child.  This is alive.  This is valuable.  You don’t throw it away.” –Marinell Harriman,
Importance of Permanence.  This is teaching responsibility. 

by Carolyn Mixon, HRS Educator

Carolyn Mixon is a founding member of the House Rabbit Resource Network in Austin, TX and a House Rabbit Society Educator. She has lived with house rabbits since 1988 and in 1992, brought baby Emily home to Gracie and Jessie, both rescued rabbits. Through Carolyn’s guidance, Emily has become a responsible child who has empathy and knowledge for animals far beyond her years.

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