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Kids’ Pet Care Responsibilities

As parents, there are some things we just know.  For example, Johnny may REALLY want that puppy; he emphatically promises that he’ll feed, water, and walk the puppy every day; but, six months from now, WE will be feeding, watering, and walking that puppy.  Once the initial rush of excitement passes for Johnny, he will forget his daily puppy chores and will pay attention to the dog only when it’s fun for him (i.e., wrestling on the floor, playing ball in the yard, cuddling up together when watching a movie on DVD, and sleeping together in bed at night).  So, let’s discuss how to navigate successfully kids’ pet care responsibilities.

Why do kids lose interest in caring for pets?  First, kids have short attention spans.  Second, kids (and adults) like to do fun things more than chores, so they’d usually rather play than work.  Once they have their puppies, they no longer need to “sell” the idea of getting a puppy, and the promises made become promises forgotten because they sound a little like the aforementioned work.  Third, they do not natively consider how their choices affect the puppy.

How can parents encourage kids to take care of their pets?  Begin by helping your kids understand the relationship that they have with their puppy and how their puppy is affected by their choices.  For example, “Johnny, just like I am your parent, you are like a parent to your puppy.  We are blessed to have you, to care for you.  Similarly, you are blessed to have him, to care for him.  Not everyone has a puppy, especially a puppy as wonderful as yours is.  He depends on you to care for his most basic needs like food, water, and love.  If you don’t feed him, he will starve.  He loves you; can you imagine how he would feel if the one he loves and depends on allows him to starve to death?  If you love him, and I know you do, you need to take care of him, just as we do you.”  Next, you need to speak to character.  For example, “I know you are a person with great character, Johnny.  You always try to do the right thing.  Keeping promises and being a responsible person are the right things to do.  Sometimes, it can be difficult to do the right thing.  It’s not always fun or even easy, but it’s still the right thing to do.  There are days I don’t like my job very much; I still go to work every day because the jobs that Daddy and I have allow us as a family to have food and shelter.  Do you see what I mean?”  Once these conversations are held, follow-up and feedback are in order.  Ensure that Johnny is attending to his puppy; praise him when he does well, emphasizing the benefits to the puppy (i.e., being a healthy, happy, loved puppy); redirect him when he does not do well, emphasizing the potential harm to the puppy (i.e., starvation, fear, emotional injury).

What types of pet care is age appropriate for kids of different age groups?  Age groups are based on stereotypes.  Some kids are natively more responsible than others.  Other than the most physical tasks for which age groups may be more consistently relevant (i.e., a two year old child should not be responsible for walking the 140 pound Great Pyrenees dog that loves to chase rabbits), pet care responsibilities should be delegated based on the level of responsibility of the kids, which may or may not be consistent with their ages.  Start by delegating infrequent and easy tasks that are consistent with the kids’ interests, abilities, resources, and schedule.  For example, Janie (who spends a lot of time puttering in the kitchen every morning as she dawdles over breakfast) may be tasked with putting fresh water in the dog bowl every morning; after all, both the dog bowl and the kitchen sink just happen to be in the kitchen along with Janie every morning.  Johnny (who loves to play outdoors) may be tasked with exercising the dog daily:  they can play frisbee, ball, or tug-o-war, or they can go for a walk or chase each other around the backyard.  Jessica (who is a high-energy, indoorsy girl) can be tasked with finding daily fun with the dog indoors (i.e., hide-and-seek, tug-o-war, or fetch-the-stuffed-animal).  As these tasks are handled successfully by your kids, you may delegate other tasks.  For example, Jessica may be tasked with giving the puppy his afternoon dental chew treat as soon as their play time is over.

In sum, having a pet is a privilege that is not to be taken lightly.  Pets love their human families unconditionally and depend on us for their most basic needs.  Kids need to give and receive love and to learn responsibility and empathy.  The pairing of kids and pets is mutually beneficial.  Teaching our kids to fulfill reasonable pet responsibilities is a task that requires parental delegation, instruction, observation, follow-up, and, if need be, assumption of roles abdicated by the kids.

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