[Week 29 of 52 Weeks to a Better Relationship With Your Child]
You want what for a pet?!
Children can be very creative about what they think will make a good pet. And then you have to think about whether this will create a nightmare or fond memories? Adding a pet to the family can result in either. Young children often clamor for a pet. New parents often don’t remember the real work involved in having a family pet. And the combination of pets and small children may surprise parents.
Having a pet is sort of like having a child that never grows up. While there may be different philosophies about self-ownership of animals, the practicalities are that pets have to be provided for and even sometimes locked up. There have to be rules of engagemen, so that the animal does not ruin property, hurt people, or get hurt from not understanding the limits of the environment.
For a pet to be enjoyed, and to enjoy its life, there are important factors to consider and prepare for:
- What general knowledge of and experience with animals do the parents have?
- What knowledge and experience do the parents have with a specific kind of animal?
- What are the overall existing commitments and pursuits of the family?
- What environment does the family live in, such as the type of house, immediate surroundings, and weather?
- How old are the children who are wanting the pet?
- How much will the children be at home?
- How much will the pet be shared?
- What will the standards of pet care/interaction be?
The wolves would follow him home
Some people are more comfortable with and more naturally intuitive about animals. My husband is one of those people. When he goes out running, dogs just join him of their own accord. For a while, they don’t seem to remember they ever belonged to anyone else. He even pet a bear once that walked right by him when he was about 7 years old. I, on the other hand, was attacked by a dog in high school and it took me years to get over the fear of dogs.
For a family to have a good pet experience, parents should honestly evaluate their own experiences and assumptions about pets. It can seem so normal to have a cat or a dog or a fish. However, these are not just toys you can take the batteries out of. Basically any animal other than a snake or fish needs daily care.
Pets that are neglected are a high risk for destroying the home and yard, getting bugs or ailments that complicate life, and ending up as wild animals. Each family has its own considerations that might make a pet an easy or a traumatic relationship. It is okay to say ‘no’ to a pet if you judge it not a good time, regardless of the encouragement of others that “every child should have a dog.” It will be best for the pet and everyone in the family if the parents feel ready for the challenge.
The snake that ate the tablecloth
One of my uncles had a pet snake (Burmese python) that he fed whole frozen chickens to. One time, my uncle made the mistake of putting the frozen chicken on a fabric table cloth that had been left on the picnic table. He realized his mistake when the table cloth started to go down the snake’s throat. It had stuck to the frozen chicken. The snake would probably have died if he hadn’t gotten it out.
To my knowledge, snakes don’t often have this sort of problem in the wild. It was a problem unique to being a pet in human territory. My uncle had had the snake for a long time and knew a lot about snakes, but there are always new things to learn. So I’m not suggesting that parents or children need to be experts in order to get a pet.
What I am suggesting is that it takes a lot of energy to learn new things and to problem solve. It always seems easy to people who have been doing it for a while. Asking people who own a certain kind of pet how hard it is may not give you a clear idea.
If a parent has previous experience with total responsibility for a certain type of pet, then teaching the children about that animal will be relatively fun and easy. If pet ownership is new to everyone in the family, there will probably be a lot of surprises in store. Like when a snake gets out of its terrarium and into the neighbor’s yard…
The sad story of the cat in the bucket
If you have never really been in charge of the type of pet being considered and have a couple of small children, that pet is probably a bad idea. Someone will probably get hurt. And it might be the pet.
Children often don’t have a good grasp of how to keep something alive, so without constant supervision of the pet-child interaction, bad things are likely. Unfortunately, a kitten lost its life at our house because it got put in a bucket with a lid. One minute the 4 year old was playing happily with it, the next we-parents couldn’t find it and didn’t even think to ask about something like that. It suffocated.
Parents need to think about the current stress level of the house. Too many changes, even happy ones, can make it hard to think and keep track of things. If you have just moved or there is a new baby, it might not be a good time to add a pet to the mix. Sometimes a pet might be just the emotional support a child needs, but sometimes it could just be another step toward chaos.
It is kind of like adding salt to your soup. The right amount is great, but too much and it tastes awful. Adding a pet to the family at a bad time is like adding too much salt to your soup. It will strain relationships in unnecessary ways.
Dogs in purses
When we lived in Taipei, it was common to see women carrying fluffy little dogs around in purses. The dogs seemed quite content. Most people in Taipei live in apartments, so small, portable dogs make a lot of sense.
Sometimes we saw people walking larger dogs, but most of the larger dogs we saw in Taipei were wild. Packs of muscle dogs roamed the city parks and beleaguered mongrels begged on many street corners. These were not indigenous dogs. They were all sorts of breeds. It was explained to us that a lot of people thought they wanted pets once, but many of the pets were then let loose on the streets.
Parents need to be realistic about the current home environment. It may seem obvious that a horse won’t do well on a suburban lot (except in the movies), but do you have enough room for a large dog to stretch its legs? A cage for a guinea pig takes up minimal space, but what about ventilation?
Children need to be firmly guided in which types of pets to consider for your home environment. This is only fair to the pet and will lead to better relationships with it, since it is not constantly struggling in unsuitable constraints.
How home environment factors in will depend somewhat on how much people are willing to work on it or with it. Can you afford a fence? If not, you probably can’t afford a pet. Do you only have a small yard? How often can someone realistically take the dog out for a much needed jaunt? Always remember that what sounds like ‘no problem’ at first tends to get tedious and inconvenient after a while. It is wise to err on the side of margin, then success with your pet will be more likely.
How many people can one dog own?
After two failures at dog ownership when our kids were just too small, we took a break until the older kids were really strong enough and had established basic habits of responsibility. Then when a ‘puppy opportunity’ presented itself and they asked for one, we knew it could be managed. Still, even if it was the kids’ puppy, its life was really in our, the parents, hands. We were the ones who would supervise and facilitate.
If you don’t have foundational parental authority already settled in the home, a pet is just going to be another battle. If you do have healthy parent-child roles in place, pet care will go well. With rare exception, children will need to be reminded of their commitment and encouraged to follow through with it. They may need to be reminded that it is not the same as a hobby collecting rocks or drawing.
If the pet belongs to everyone, the parent needs to somehow help divide up the care and see that it gets done. If the pet belongs to only one child, there will still be a need to monitor. It is partly for the good of the pet and partly along the same lines as what was discussed in Guidelines for Children’s Property Rights in the Home.
One way to help children remember pet care is to make it part of their regular chore routine. Avoid letting issues get out of control by having a regular schedule for things, such as cleaning out cages or exercising the dog. If something needs to be done that isn’t on the regular list, give a time by which it should be done and ask the child to report in when it is finished. This relieves the parent of having to continually ask and gives the child a chance to take more initiative.
When I got my own dog, the trainer pointed out that a puppy needs one main person to bond with for initial training. This meant it was best for one person to be in charge of not only training practice, but making sure the puppy had a routine for eating, sleeping, and pooping. In between training sessions, the puppy could play with anyone.
You can read more about some unique pet experiences in our family in my book Melody’s Life Savings. This is a book about our daughter’s battle with and death from leukemia, but, since she was an animal lover, involves a lot of animals.
A family pet ownership project is a good time to help children see how to divide up responsibility to get good results for everyone. Making decisions about who is best suited to deal with different aspects of pet care can lead to wider discussions about jobs and project management in terms that children can understand, but which they can also apply in adult life. If some children are not able to help at first, there is no reason they can’t be added to the flow chart later.
Did you just personify that squirrel?
Pets are an opportunity to teach children many things about life. Besides responsibility, pets can help a child understand everything from biology to compassion. When a pet dies, a child will face sorrow. Pets can be nearly as dear to us as people.
My kids showed me a YouTube channel of a lady who has tamed a squirrel. She even dresses it up. The clothes make the squirrel, to paraphrase a Latin proverb. That is one lucky squirrel! Pets may be just animals, but it is okay to love them with our whole human heart.
It is eye-opening for a child to have something else completely dependent on him. Many pets give unconditional acceptance and help teach about friendship. There are many good reasons to try to fit a pet into your family. In some ways, pets can be people, too, because as living creatures we can love them very much. Done right, a pet can be another firm bond in a parent-child relationship.