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Article Archive >> Community

Parents and Children: Teaching Children Responsibility for Pet Care

Parents and Children
Teaching Children Responsibility for Pet Care
by Jacqueline Seewald

Most children want to have a pet. While wheedling and begging for that perfect pet, your children will sincerely promise to take loving care of that wonderful creature they so desperately desire. Guided correctly, children can learn to properly care for their pets. And it is the best sort of experience for a child, learning to give and receive love, an experience that will help a child ultimately prepare for more mature relationships later in life.
Adult Guidance:
Let's get real. As parents, we need to understand that children are not capable of caring for animals without adult guidance.
Caring for a pet may teach nurturing skills and responsibility, but those qualities can take years to develop.
Ultimate Responsibility for Pets:
Before agreeing to accept a pet into the family, make certain that all adult members of the family realize that they must also accept ultimate responsibility. I recently discussed this issue with a former professional pet-sitter and longtime pet owner, Agnes O'Sullivan, who made the following comments: "When a pet is brought into the home, all family members must make a commitment to the pet. In doing my pet-sitting I have seem marriages in turmoil when the husband brought home a dog that the wife didn't want. The dog ends up having a miserable life, as who is home with the animal most of the time? The wife! So the poor animal gets tied up and ignored...and marital problems can come about due to the hostility over the animal."
Minimizing the Negatives:
What can parents do to minimize negatives for the entire family? How can owning and caring for a pet be a positive family experience?
Here are some suggestions:
* Start small with pets if you and your children are unaccustomed to having them. For example, consider gerbils, guinea pigs or hamsters, gentle animals that require limited care. Having gone that route, I can testify that they do make good pets for small children.
Unfortunately, although children are eager to feed and play with their pets, the cage cleaning is quite another matter.
* Turtles and other reptiles are not recommended for young children because they may harbor salmonella. Fish tend to be delicate and demand a good deal of care. Watching fish swimming in an aquarium does have a calming effect particularly on hyperactive children. However, children are upset when their precious pets are found floating dead in the water. Our own experiences with both tropical and goldfish were not altogether pleasant. Caring for them properly required much vigilance. Snakes can also present a problem in that their eating habits require live prey. This may not fit in with your family lifestyle.
* This brings us to the next suggestion. Do some homework on animals before you decide which pet will be best for your family. For example, some dogs are naturally more high-strung than others. Make certain to select a breed that is good-natured with children. You don't want one that is nervous or hostile. Children can be hard on pets and much as you would like to be supervising at all times, most parents realize that it just isn't possible. If you select a pet from a shelter, which is a commendable thing to do, make certain before taking it home that animal is amenable. With dogs, check to see if the dog will allow you to pet it. Check the temperament of a cat by seeing if it lets you hold it and if it is playful. My son Dan and his wife have a cat that is not good-natured; she hisses and bites strangers. This cat was left on their doorstep as a kitten. When they go away, we invariably have the duty of caring for "the cat from hell." It is, needless to say, not a particularly pleasant responsibility.
* Even if you receive a "free" pet or get one from a shelter, be aware that there are expenses involved: food, cages, equipment, vet bills, can add up. Make certain you can afford these additional costs before taking on pet care. Having to give up a pet once the children are emotionally attached is much more harmful than never having a pet in the first place.
* Do not let your child talk you into getting a pet simply because it appears to be cute and cuddly unless you know what caring for the animal will entail. Suzanne Trayhan, President of House Rabbit Network, (www.rabbitnetwork.org) observes that "parents often think rabbits are good 'starter' pets and don't understand that rabbits are fragile. Their spines and legs will break if accidentally dropped." Too many parents don't realize that animals are a family commitment.
* Once you have chosen a family pet, make certain that every child in the family takes some form of responsibility for it. One technique is to set up a weekly chore list and include pet duties. Make this list up with the children and discuss it, so that they are part of the decision-making process. Post the chore list on a bulletin board in the kitchen. Each child's name should be appear and underneath the name should be a list of chores required for every day of the week. As chores are completed, the child checks them off on a daily basis. Again, children should be included with the creation of this list, which can be very simple and informal or a computer-generated database.
* You may choose to associate chore completion with earning allowance money. This acts as an incentive, a motivation, when the novelty of pet care begins to ware thin.
*Younger children can feed pets under adult supervision. Older children can clean cages, walk dogs, wash and groom animals.
* Proper training and discipline is also necessary in dealing with pets. For instance, in the case of dogs, take your children with you to obedience classes.
* If your child fails to carry out his or her pet care chores, there should be a punishment, a fair one. Do not get rid of the pet. This is too extreme. Simply take something away for a prescribed amount of time, such as watching television. And when your child is thoughtful rather than neglectful, don't forget to offer praise, which is often the best reward.
The more you and your children learn about pets and share responsibilities, the better your experience will be. Your children will develop into mature, caring adults.

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