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How Being a Pet Owner Prepared Me for Becoming a Parent

Being a parent is a richly rewarding but tough job.  Kids don’t come with operator’s manuals, so parenting is often mastered through the equivalent of on-the-job training.  First-time parents often feel unprepared, but, from my experience, being a pet “owner” (or, as I call it, a pet parent) can foster the development of a lot of transferrable skills and help prepare people to parent a human.  While it is not my statement that raising humans is identical to raising cats and dogs, it is my statement that there are marked similarities.  Below is a list of the most important ways that being a pet “owner” prepared me to parent my human children.

  1. I learned that the emotions, needs, and desires of others may trump my own from time to time.  When there’s a midnight thunderstorm, I’m usually awakened from peaceful slumber by my dog who is nervous about the storm and acting out as a result.  I may try to ignore or punish my dog for waking me up in the hopes that, in doing so, I can get back to sleep quickly.  However, I’ve learned that I will spend more time awake (and become more frustrated) this way than if I would just take the time to attend to my dog’s emotions.  Once he is comforted, I can return to blissful slumber, and all will be well for both of us.  This same scenario has played out similarly with my two-year-old daughter who is frightened by midnight thunderstorms.
  2. I learned to be more understanding of the perspectives of others, different though they may be from my own.  One winter evening years ago, I had a houseguest who arrived wearing a leather coat with a rabbit’s fur collar.  I took her coat and laid it on the bed in our guest bedroom.  After several hours of great conversation at our dining room table, I took her to retrieve her coat and was horrified to find that our cat had taken the collar apart, mouthful by mouthful.   Tufts of rabbit fur were everywhere.  That’s when it dawned on me that cats are hardwired to see rabbits as prey, which is very likely what my cat thought that rabbit’s fur collar was.  My cat was just doing what came naturally to him.  I reimbursed my friend for the cost to repair her coat, and now I hang coats up in our foyer coat closet.  As to human children, toddlers and teens often employ a flow of logic that varies somewhat (or substantially) from their parents’.  By seeking to understand why the kids think, feel, and act as they do, parents are more likely to form plans that work with rather than against the kids’ ways of looking at the world.
  3. I learned to compromise and accept less than absolute perfection as defined by my own standards.  The cat doesn’t want his litter box in the laundry room because it’s too noisy; he seems to prefer having it in the master bathroom where I think it’s inconvenient.  So, we compromised and placed his litter box under the sink in the mudroom; it’s not in my way, and it’s not noisy.  Everybody’s happy.  The dog likes having his blanket on the sofa; I prefer a tidy house without blankets strewn on the furniture.  However, I’ve come to understand that this is his house too, and that old, pilled blanket is important to him.  So, it adorns our sofa each and every day, and I’ve decided that I’m ok with that.  Kids too need to feel that they have some voice in their outcomes; by engaging kids in compromise, they take on roles as active negotiators, thus giving them voice.  Similarly, kids’ standard of perfection is often different than their parents’; by letting go of rigid perfectionism, parents give kids the space to be themselves . . . put a poster on their bedroom wall, wear mismatched socks just to make a personal statement, etc.
  4. I learned to establish my leadership role in the household while also being responsive to the needs of my dependents to have some control over their own circumstances.  Dogs are pack animals, and somebody’s got to be the leader of the pack.  If you don’t assert your leadership, your dog will.  This is true for kids as well; if you don’t assert your leadership with your kids, your kids will take over leadership.  For both dogs and kids, this leadership abdication usually has negative outcomes (i.e., dogs may become aggressive, kids may run amok).  As noted above, though, leading the household doesn’t mean doing so without regard to the needs and desires of the followers.  Benevolent leadership is essential.
  5. I learned how to attend to little ones who depend on me for their most basic needs (i.e, feeding, pottying, giving and receiving love, etc.).  The dog needs to go for a walk, the cat is hungry, the kids are ready for their evening cuddle time.  I’ve learned to be reliable and consistent in attending to these needs.
  6. I learned to balance the needs of my dependents when choosing my own behaviors.  A few months after I adopted my dog, I was invited to go on a weekend skiing trip to Colorado.  I had a lot to think about.  If I went, would the newly adopted dog be traumatized by being left so soon?  Should I find a pet sitter to come into my home for the weekend?  Should I take my dog to my neighbor’s house for the weekend (he too has a dog, and the two dogs are buddies)?  Should I just decline the opportunity to take the trip and stay at home nurturing my relationship with my new-to-me dog?  If I choose to go, what preparations will I need to make so that the pet sitter or neighbor can attend to my dog as well as possible in my absence?  What toys should be made available?  What instructions and emergency numbers should be given?   Less than a decade later, I was asking myself these same questions regarding our first vacation following the birth of our first child.
  7. I learned that praise is a more constructive tool for influencing my dependents’ behaviors than is criticism.  My cat used to claw the edge of the sofa.  When this first happened, I yelled, “NO!”  What the cat learned from this experience is that I’m scary . . . not that scratching the sofa is unacceptable.  I subsequently bought a scratching post and placed it next to the sofa.  When the cat used the scratching post, I praised him effusively.  “Good kitty!  I’m so proud of you!  Thank you for using your scratching post!”  When he scratched the sofa again, I didn’t yell at him; instead, I silently picked him up and gently placed him in front of his scratching post.  When he immediately used his scratching post, I again praised him generously.  It didn’t take long before he figured out where the best place to scratch was.  Kids respond similarly.  Yell at kids, and they think you’re mean.  Praise them and they (usually) seek to please.

In sum, pet “ownership” is not identical to parenting a human child, but there are striking similarities, and a lot can be learned by having pets that will help prepare people to become parents.

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