How to Teach Children Responsibility with Pets
I’m a part of many different pet communities: reptiles, dogs, cats, small animals, even insects and invertebrates. One question gets asked consistently in every one of those communities: “What is the best starter pet for my child?” The reactions are usually a mixture of suggestions and people saying “your child is too young!”
Personally, I feel like the question itself is worded poorly or the expectation behind it is a bit naive. Instead of asking what animal their child can care for on their own, parents should be asking how to teach children responsibility with pets.
When I was a kid, I had a lot of pets. Not much has changed. Those early years taught me a lot about responsibility, caring for my pets, and commitment. My parents prepared me for success with my animals. Some of these points will vary with age, but the basic premises still remain. Even with an older child, if they haven’t been taught certain concepts before, they may need as much direction as a younger child.
Based on my experiences, here are some guides to follow on how to teach children responsibility with pets.
How to Teach Children Responsibility with Pets
First off, as the parent, YOU are responsible for the animal, not your child. The goal is to show the child how to be somewhat independent with their pet’s care, depending on the child’s age, but as the adult, you are ultimately responsible for anyone living in your house, human or animal. I have lost track of how many times I’ve seen pets for sale with the explanation of “my child didn’t take care of their pet, so we’re getting rid of it”. This just teaches a child that animals are disposable. This mindset can carry over into all areas of life.
“This goal was too difficult, so let’s just quit.”
“This task was too boring, so let’s quit.”
Sticking with something that isn’t always enjoyable is a very important lesson to learn.
Lead By Example
Telling your child “go take care of the dog” may seem like a simple enough instruction, but don’t forget that they’re still young. Everything is a learning experience for them. You don’t teach a child to swim by tossing them in the deep end of the pool and expecting them to swim like a fish on the first try. That method doesn’t work with pet care either.
Instead, help them take care of the dog. Show them how to measure the correct amount of food. Teach them how to rinse the water dish out when they go to refill it. Go with them when they walk the dog. Show them the joy that their care brings to the pet. They’re making their animal’s life better. Teach them to find enjoyment in that.
Create a Routine
Routine will be helpful for both the child and the pet. For dogs, a regular schedule can be invaluable for potty training, discouraging begging, and even their overall comfort level. We’re all creatures of habit, even our pet, so let’s create good habits.
As a kid, each morning I got up, checked on food and water for my small animals, refilled as necessary, took the dog outside, and fed the cat. Each of the animals knew this routine. The cat would be waiting near her bowls, and the dog would run expectantly to the door to go out. The cat rarely begged for food at any other time of day. The dog had a specific route she followed. If she ever got off leash, we could count on finding her if we just followed the same path as usual.
Each Saturday was deep-cleaning of all the small animal cages. We took all the guinea pig cages (and whatever other animals we had: quail, parakeets, hamsters, etc) out to the yard, removed the soiled bedding, scrubbed them with soap and water, dried them, and set up the cages inside again.
We knew what to expect, and while we certainly protested at times, we knew that if we just got down to business, it would be finished quickly.
Teach them to Study
With every animal I’ve owned, even dogs and cats, there’s always something new to be learned. Before I got my first guinea pig, my parents took me to the library, showed me how to find books on guinea pigs, and had me read about them until I could write a short essay on their care. I was eight or nine years old at the time. Not only did I learn about guinea pigs, but I learned how to learn on my own.
Learning how to study will obviously help with school and their future education. But it also helps keep up on care information about their pet. You could read for years and still find out new things about dogs. Or the commonly misunderstood cat. (I’ve been amazed at what I’ve learned about cats just in the past year!)
Even if new information isn’t being discovered, a thirst for knowledge is an admirable thing, and it takes a long time to be an expert on any topic. The more you or your child study, the more you’ll retain and put to use in real life.
Make it Fun
If a kid finds a task miserable with no redeeming qualities, it’s going to be hard to get them to do it. The simple tasks like feeding and watering their pet shouldn’t be an issue since they’re pretty fast. But if you have twelve guinea pig cages to clean like I did as a kid, it can seem like an insurmountable task.
On cleaning day, my parents made sure we cleaned cages before we played with our guinea pigs or any of the fun activities we had planned. Get the crappy stuff out of the way, then fun follows. That concept is pretty universal for all sorts of things in life. Learning it with pets sets your kid up for good habits later on.
“Paying” them to complete tasks is a valid method as well. As adults, most of us go to work each day in exchange for a paycheck. For your kid, certain tasks can easily be incentivised. Maybe they earn a small piece of candy for sweeping up around the guinea pig cage. Or points on the chores chart for washing the dog’s dishes.
How have you incorporated pets into your child’s life? Do you have any other tips on how to teach children responsibility with pets? Share them in the comments below!