Last week, I read Daniel Pinkwater’s book I am the Dog with three kindergarten classrooms. In the story, a boy named Jacob and his dog Max decide to switch places for a day with Jacob living Max’s life as a dog and Max living Jacob’s life as a young human.

Living as a dog, Jacob sleeps on the carpet, eats out of bowls on the floor, runs in circles in the yard, enjoys romping around in the park, and deals with the consequences of eating Max’s homework. In Max’s time living as a boy, he sleeps in the bed, brushes his teeth, has dinner at the family table, goes to school, and deals with the consequences of Max eating his homework. In the end, the two decide that it is better to be a dog than a human.

In all three kindergarten classrooms I began by asking the students if they agree with Max and Jacob that it is better to be a dog than a human. For many students, the appeal of the seemingly carefree life of a dog was too hard to resist. They said, “It is better to be a dog because you get to go and play at the park!” When I asked if they ever play at the park as humans, they paused and reflected a bit. The difference can’t be that dogs play in parks and humans don’t, so why does it seem better to be a dog?

One student said dogs can do tricks which is something humans cannot do. I pointed out that my dog can’t do any tricks, but I have seen humans do incredible things in gymnastics, skiing, and skateboarding. We went along like this – working on honing our reasoning to try to get to the bottom of why being a dog might be better than being a human. One student said, “Sometimes humans get tired” and another student agreed.

I asked them “What is hard about being a human?” They had many good responses here including that humans have to go to school and work, that we cannot always do just what we want to do, and that it can be hard when your parents go to work or travel to Africa as one student’s father is doing right now. While there are many joys of being a human (they were particularly keen on the variety of foods we can eat), there are challenges as well. The students did a lovely job discussing these two sides of the human condition.

In another kindergarten room one student said “It is better to be a human than a dog because people don’t tell you what to do all the time when you are a human.” I found this striking because my observation is that young people are told what to do much of the time. I noted this to the students, saying “That’s interesting because in just the short time I have been with you today I have heard you being told to sit crisscross applesauce, not call out, sit on your bottoms, etc. It seems like people tell you what to do quite a lot!”. Unsurprisingly, that led the students back to thinking about why it might be better to be a dog!

After sitting quietly nearly the whole session, one usually talkative student said: “It is better to be a human than a dog. If you are a dog and get lost, you will be alone and have no one to take care of you. If you are a bulldog with no fur you will get cold. It might be rainy, and you will get wet. If you go to people’s houses, they won’t let you in. Dogs cannot use words, so no one will know you need help. If you are a person, you can ask for help and people might listen to you. It would be terrible not to be able to ask for help.”

Her comment has stuck with me all week. This very young philosopher listened to her peers’ ideas and discussion all the while sitting patiently and silently. Because she is often very talkative, I wondered if something was wrong or if she just wasn’t feeling particularly engaged by our topic. Clearly, however, she was deeply engaged and thinking carefully about what was being said by the others in our circle — a good reminder that silence can mean many different things for our students. When she did share her thoughts at the very end, she hit on need, vulnerability, and the dependency we all have on care and compassion. She was also thinking about how animals are treated differently because they cannot always express need the way humans understand or are willing to engage with. She was aware of, and struggling with, the degree of vulnerability that brings to animals’ lives.

When she was done sharing her thought, one student yelled out “I would let a dog in if they came to my door!” which was so very heartening to hear and was a reminder to us all that the ability to help others is one great thing about being a human.

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