If there were ever words that could strike fear into the heart of a parent, these are the words “Mom Can I Have a Puppy?” Don’t get me wrong – I LOVE animals of all kinds. We’ve always had anywhere from one to numerous pets during our marriage.
In fact, it’s not usually the boys dragging home a new pet – it’s usually my HUSBAND. I counted once and over 30 years of marriage he has brought home at more than a dozen dogs, three cats, two snakes, a pair of ducks, and a turtle. Most of them were short-term strays that we were able to return to their owners, but many of them came to stay. Currently, we are on our second St Bernard (he has a thing for gigantic dogs) and also have two cats and a pair of zebra finches. So, obviously – we LIKE pets around here.
[bctt tweet=”it’s not my boys dragging home a new pet – it’s my HUSBAND”]
But I digress. My topic is kids and pets. I think pets are a critical part of childhood. Kids can get enormous comfort from pets. They build an emotional bond with them that they can’t really have with mere people. But the question is – what kind of pet to get for your kids, what age is appropriate for them to assume full responsibility for pets, and when should you maybe not get a pet for your kids?
[bctt tweet=”I think pets are a critical part of childhood”]
From birth to about age 6
I don’t think is a great time to have pets, unless you have really mellow ones. Older dogs or extremely tolerant cats seem to be a good fit. A young puppy or kitten that is very energetic and is going to scratch or jump up and frighten a small child, probably not a good choice. Plus with all the care a young child requires, you may not have enough time to properly care for a pet. Listen to me, we adopted a St Bernard puppy when I was 8 months pregnant! A lot of people opt for small pets like birds, fish, or hamsters at this age. But these are delicate critters that might not be strong enough to survive the excessive love of a young child.
I think a stuffed or electronic animal like those little Pet Shop pets are a great choice at this age. They can pretend all they want, lug them around and handle them roughly. Then when they are bored with them, they can park them on the shelf and ignore them. You can’t do that with a live animal. I got a set of Pet Shop pets for my little granddaughter when she visited this summer and she loved them.
Obviously, at this age, a child can’t be expected to properly care for a pet. Though they can help fill water or food bowls, or gently “help” groom a pet. Usually, with little ones, my focus is all on teaching them to handle the pet gently. It is a cardinal rule of our family that no one is ever allow to hurt an animal or to frighten it unnecessarily, so we start those lessons early.
[bctt tweet=”It is a cardinal rule of our family that no one is ever allow to hurt an animal”]
From age 6 to age 12
I consider this more of an apprentice-level age. This is a good age for a medium-sized and calm dog. Probably not a puppy yet because they are so energetic and time-consuming to train. But a 2 or 3-year-old dog that has calmed down a bit would work nicely. Cats are good too, because kids this age are capable of being gentle if they are taught properly.
Most kids in this age range, still aren’t really responsible enough for the full care of a pet. I feel it isn’t very realistic to expect a kid under 12 to remember to care for a pet, but if you take a supervisory role, they can most likely DO most of the feeding, watering, and walking, but it is asking a lot from a kid this young to REMEMBER to do it.
When my kids were this age, they were old enough to realize that a pet had it’s own needs and preferences. They could tell that it would suffer if it wasn’t fed or watered. A younger child, not so much. And I was able to impress upon them that you can’t say “sorry” to an animal. If you hurt or frighten it, it’s just going to be scared of you next time. It doesn’t understand that you didn’t really mean it, or just weren’t being careful enough.
From age 12 and up.
This is where kids really come into their own regarding pets. They are old enough now to assume more or less full responsibility for caring for their pets.
You still need to touch base with them to be sure the pet isn’t being neglected. But once they reach this age, I will pretty much NEVER do their pet care for them. Unless they are deathly sick or off at summer camp or something. Same thing with their other chores too. Once I assign a chore, it’s pretty much their responsibility. While it would be easier to just do it myself, they aren’t going to learn anything if I jump in and do their work for them.
Usually, my boys are pretty good about it. They will feel really awful if they realize they’ve forgotten to feed or water the critters, but sometimes an object lesson is in order. One time when it had happened a few times in a row, I asked my son to voluntarily skip dinner one night. Just so he could understand what it felt like for his dog to be without food. By bedtime, he was hungry enough that we both felt he had learned his lesson. He didn’t miss any feedings for quite some time after that.
I think that is the key to helping them learn to manage pets. It doesn’t help to yell or threaten to give the pet away. They know you won’t actually do it. The one thing I did do is if they were neglecting the pet, I would deny them the opportunity to enjoy the pet. I would restrict them from petting the pet, sleeping with it, or interacting with it for a day or two. That usually made a surprisingly big impression on them.
I think the important part of the lesson of pet ownership is getting them to understand that this is a helpless being that is totally dependent upon THEM for all it’s needs. I know that is a strategy that works for prisoners and all kinds of disadvantaged kids. That feeling of truly being needed just seems to work a big change in them. I think it’s an important part of teaching them to be good parents when the time comes.