Teaching responsibility through pet ownership
“Mom, we’re coming home with a new member of the family,” my 17-year-old happily announced. “Oh boy,” I said. As a new widow, this was the last thing we needed—another pet. But this dog would officially be my “adopted” son’s pet and he would be responsible for all his care. He agreed if it didn’t work out, his mom, who recently lost her 14-year-old dog, would take him. But “Buddy” was currently on probation with us. When I first met Buddy, a St. Bernard mix, I said, “No way! He’s huge and he’s going to be a handful!” But his pitiful look and laid back ways made me give him a chance. Besides, I thought he would help my daughter through her grieving process.
A UK pet retailer, Pets at Home, surveyed 1000 children ages 5-16 who have pets in their homes. A high percentage of the children believe caring for a pet makes them more responsible, caring, happy and intelligent. 36% of the children said they have become more caring and 34% feel a greater sense of responsibility.1
What Does Pet Ownership Teach Kids?
Pets teach kids to be more caring towards others. Children generally are focused on their own needs. Having a pet will teach them to serve others’ needs as well.
Having a pet means the life and well-being of another living creature is in your hands. The biggest responsibility is love. It can take a lot of time, money and energy. You have to be committed and work hard. Before pet ownership, there are certain things that must be considered such as the pet’s life span, how much time you and your child have to commit to your pet and the costs involved.
Before getting a pet, ask these questions: Why does the child want a pet? How mature is the child? Can he/she handle the responsibility and if not, will you help? How will the new pet affect the rest of the family and other pets already in the home?
Pets can be a very positive experience for children. They offer companionship, entertainment and education. However, they require care, attention and maintenance and also involve a financial commitment. They teach great responsibility, but the rewards can be very positive! The children also need to learn what happens when they don’t take care of their pets. And we have had several accidents or deaths when proper care was not given.
Part of pet responsibility is how children treat their pets. There are certain behaviors that should be banned, otherwise the child may be at risk of getting bit or scratched by the pet. They can also seriously hurt the animal. Excessive hugging and kissing, chasing, running, screaming, poking, teasing, handling roughly and riding on, are all behaviors that should be avoided.
Responsibilities of Pet Ownership
Children may need adult supervision when interacting with some pets. Don’t expect too much from younger children. For example, cleaning a cat’s litter box can be very dangerous, as small children touch their eyes and mouth and may not properly wash their hands after doing the task. Don’t overwhelm the child. It will discourage them from taking care of the pets and therefore will resent them. Then the pets will be the ones who suffer in the long run.
Here are some ways to encourage responsible behavior:
- Praise your child every time a pet chore is done without having to ask
- Try to reward your child in a way with a fun pet activity
- If they start to lapse on their responsibility, offer gentle reminders
- If problem persists, sit down with your child and see what can be done to make it more effective
- Be a good example yourself
Parents must be clear about the responsibilities of pet ownership before a pet is received. And if a child does not care for the pet as she should or neglects assigned duties, perhaps a loss of privileges should be the consequences.
The lifelong commitment and responsibility to a pet ultimately rests on the adults in the house, not the children. If you’re not sure whether your child is read for a pet, especially a cat or a dog, consider fostering an animal for a short while. This will serve several purposes; you and your child can see what it actually requires to take care of this type of pet and animal rescue organizations are always in need of care for strays or abandoned pets. Your child may also want to volunteer at the local shelter to become familiar with what it takes to own a pet.
Throughout the years we have had every kind of pet imaginable: cats, dogs, parakeets, cockatiels, parrots, guinea pigs, fish, toads, gecko lizards, rabbits, hermit crabs and even a three foot long iguana! In fact, our children have had so much experience with different animals that they even started their own pet-sitting businesses. That’s a whole new level of responsibility.
As for Buddy, well he had a few mishaps, but he’s one of the sweetest, most easy-going dogs I’ve ever met. He gets an A on his probation report!
Having a pet is an incredibly rewarding experience for your children and can provide a lifetime of memories, education, responsibility and most of all, love.
Ages and Responsibilities for Pet Ownership
Toddlers to age 5:
- help parents put food and water in pet dishes
- clean and put away pet dishes
- put away pet toys
- help with brushing and grooming
- play with the pet
- put food and water in dishes, still with some adult supervision
- heavier level of help with cleaning and maintenance of pet areas
- grooming and bathing, depending on size and personality of the pet
- help with exercise and walking, depending on size and personality of the pet
- clean up after pet when it goes to the bathroom
Ages 10 and up:
- all aspects can be responsibly assumed unless it’s a large, unruly animal
Low, Medium and High Maintenance Pets
Low Maintenance Pets
Fish – Perfect “starter” pet
Beta fish require no filter, heater or aerator
Goldfish don’t require a filter but it is good to have one
Insects & Arthropods – Ant farms and hermit crabs are easy, educational and fun
“Sea Monkeys” (Brine shrimp) – Tiny crustaceans that are fun and very educational can be bought in kits with minimal care and can survive a year or more!
Reptiles – (Gecko lizards, toads, turtles, snakes)
They are non-allergenic so they make great pets for those that may be allergic to pet hair and dander. They are also very educational and fun. However, they need vitamins, heat and a light source
Small Birds – (Parakeets, canaries, finches) Birds are pretty easy to take care of and they are very educational and fun. However, they can be messy!
Rodents – Hamsters, guinea pigs, rabbits, rats, gerbils are all very educational and fun. However, they could be high allergens, especially guinea pigs
Medium Maintenance Pets
Cats – Cats are great for when there is limited space and you can’t get a dog. They are very independent and usually friendly
Dogs – A dog is a kid’s best friend too – we found that our boys especially love dogs, but they do require a bit more responsibility
Great kid-friendly breeds are Labs, Retrievers, Poodles, Airedale terriers (which we are biased to since we had one that was absolutely awesome! Clifford was ten years old when he passed away and we talk about him all the time. He was the best dog ever!)
High Maintenance Pets
Larger birds such as parrots, horses, chickens, goats, sheep, exotic animals such as chimpanzees, pigs, llamas, etc.
Copyright, 2014. Used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine, July/August 2014. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.