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  • Jason Steadman, Psy.D.

My kid is an animal: Furries and Therians in child development

Image: AI-generated art of a "child dressed as a cat" So your kid is an animal. I'm not talking metaphorically - like your child is wild or "out of control" like an animal. I'm talking about "furries" and the (perhaps) lesser known term therians. This growing trend that involves kids dressing and acting like animals can sometimes concern parents. Parents may worry about it just being "weird" or they may worry it's a sign that their child doesn't like who they are, so they are trying to be something else. In this blog, I'm going to just take a little time to explain what the trend is and what I think about it.

A "furry" is a sort of fandom. It typically involves people who enjoy the art of expressing themselves in an animalized way. Most commonly, they dress up as animals in a form of cosplay, but they may also display animal-like behaviors, such as crawling on all fours, hopping around like a bunny, or meowing/hissing like a cat. In my experience, most often, furry culture involves what could be considered as "cute" animals - animals that can be kept as pets (dogs, cats, bunnies, etc.) or otherwise docile/non-aggressive animals that people tend to want to cuddle. This is why the term "furry" is used, because the animals depicted tend to be furry, soft, cuddly, cute, etc. However, technically a person could "furry" as any animal, even one without fur.

Still, most people who call themselves a "furry" will still call themselves human. They understand that when they are dressing up as animals, they are doing so for fun, or for art. Mostly, they do it just because they like it. This is especially true for kids. Kids love to play pretend and love to dress up. And once they learn about the "furry" culture, they may be drawn to it because it gives them a means to dress up and pretend to be like the creatures they love. Saying "I am a furry" is just a way for kids to say they like the culture of people who like to dress up as animals. There's nothing more to it than that. So, don't get worried. It's not "weird", it's just a "shorthand" for saying, "I like to dress up as animals, and I like meeting other people that like to do that too."

When kids do this, it's harmless. It's no different than any other type of pretend play, really. It's just humans doing "cute" humans things. And even if it's not something that interests you, particularly, it's okay to allow your child to explore and enjoy their own interest in this.

At the same time, it's also okay to teach them the real practical social consequences of behaving like an animal in the wrong places and at the wrong times. Encouraging them to wear their cat outfit to school may very well violate a school dress code, and it's okay to tell kids they can't wear whatever they want to school. This is true even if you don't fully agree with the idea of a dress code in the first place. But that's perhaps another argument for another time and place. Like it or not, school's and other places in society have dress codes, and there's nothing wrong with teaching children to comply with certain societal/cultural expectations, especially if such compliance is not going to harm them and is going to make their life easier. So, don't feel bad about telling your child they can't dress as a furry at school, but do allow them to do this at home if they want. Again, it's just another form of play, and kids will have plenty of other times and places in their life where the ability to play will be beaten out of them by the need to "grow up" or learn other responsibilities. So, give them space to play.

Therian is slightly different from "furry," but still, in most cases, falls under the category of "playful imagination" and is typically harmless. Identifying as therian means that a person identifies as a non-human being, typically an animal, which might be a wolf, bear, cat, or maybe even a worm. It has a lot of overlap with the general "other kin" community of people who may identify with fantasy characters - elves, dragons, faeries, wizards, and so on). Again, for most people, this is a harmless, playful way to engage with a fandom and to be nerdy about something they enjoy. Rarely, adults may choose to take this to extremes and alter their body to look more like the animal or other-kin they love - they may get tiger stripes tattooed on their body, change the shape of their ears, or enlist other plastic surgeries that captures their identity. While atypical to go to this extreme, these extreme behaviors are still not inherently harmful, and the people that do them are not usually at great risk for problematic behaviors. They are also, again, extremely rare. Most people (kids included) are just in it for the fandom and the camaraderie that comes with being in a fandom with like-minded people.

So, these fandoms are typically social behaviors, more than anything - attempts to connect with others who like what they like. It's really no different than Arnold Schwarzenegger sculpting his body in incredible ways because of his love of the body-building community or of an ultra-marathoner punishing their bodies to condition for incredible feats of athleticism. These people are all doing something they love, and they are making connections with other people along the way who also happen to do that thing they love. So, if your child comes to you and tells you they are therian, don't freak out. In fact, play along if you want. It's not going to hurt them, and, in most cases, it will be phase that passes just like many other things that kids do passes. When I was a kid, I really liked basketball and other sports. I used to imagine I was Michael Jordan, and I spent a lot of time around gyms and with friends playing these sports. and I was pretty good. I thought, for a time, that perhaps I could even play professionally. But in my adulthood, I've not really played basketball now for >20 years. and if I tried to play now I'd be really bad. Like, for me, embarrassingly bad. For me, my interest in playing and being good at basketball was replaced by other interests, and those interests eventually solidified into who I am today. I still enjoy the sport, but I don't put my time anymore into being good at it. Most of your kids will be the same. The times in their life when they dressed as furries and/or called themselves therian will probably pass and/or progress into other interests. Sometimes they may not, and kids who were "furries' may cosplay at conventions routinely as adults. Or they may become artists who specialize in creating art featuring their beloved animal(s). The point is that most people will either pass through the interest and move on or they will develop the interest into something that works to allow them to function in modern/future society, while still engaging in their interests. In sum, these interests are a form of play, and it's totally okay to encourage your kids to play. Even if you don't understand the origins of the interest, or why they've chosen to express the interest in the ways the do, it's okay to just let the interests follow whatever natural progression they happen to follow.

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1 Comment

Apr 11

Really no different than playing cowboys and Indians when I was growing up. I do realize now that the depiction of Indians was totally inappropriate, but at the time we were ignorant about the stereotype.

Tarzan may have been my favorite. I actually thought I could leave in the woods and fight wild animals with just a knife.

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