We have all heard it, maybe even said it. “The kids really want a dog/cat/gerbil/bird.” Whatever it is, it is non human and depends on us to feed, clean and walk. We fight it but our words ring hollow because, as pet lovers ourselves, we are an easy mark. We give in because if truth be known, a new puppy or kitten sounds kind of fun. We add the statement “It will be your pet and will be a good way to teach you the responsibility of caring for a life that depends on you.” Sounds great, right? But is it realistic? Will this teach responsibility? Can we expect our children to be up to the challenge of caring for a living being? The answer to all of these questions is: Yes…and …No… and, well kind of…..maybe.
Teaching kids the responsibility of pet ownership can be a wonderful learning experience for children as well as parents. Observing just what our kids are capable of achieving when given a goal can be very reassuring for parental concerns. Similarly we may become aware of just what shortfalls we have managed in our raising of our children thinking that we have all the bases covered. Much of learning how to care for a pet is based on modeling. If our kids see us walk our dogs regularly and play with our cats often, they will assimilate that behavior. But if they witness a dog walk as letting “Duke” out in the fenced in yard for an hour of “play” on his own, or “Samantha” sleeping on the radiator all day long as her “feline environmental enrichment” don’t expect them to pick up the leash and walk Duke for a half an hour. Likewise Samantha will not suddenly be entertained by your teenager with a laser pointer.
Pet ownership is absolutely one of the greatest gifts we can give to our children. Cuddling our feline friends when we need comfort; an enthusiastic, albeit sloppy greeting from the family canine after we have had a bad day at school go great distances in allowing our kids to navigate the daily perils of childhood. But this does not come for free. What we receive in life is often a function of what we have put in. The better pet owners our children learn to be, the more they will reap from the dedication of their pets.
So, can our kids accept the responsibility of pet ownership? You bet! But they do need guidance, support and help doing their pet related chores when they have plans away from the home. Yet first it is up to us to model what this entails. Litter box cleaning, feeding, walks, careful observation of daily behavior and regular veterinary visits are all part of being good owners. It is dependent on us, as parents, to instill these values in our kids. Their success as pet owners is likely to be only as good as ours.