Does Pet Care Teach Responsibility?

Jan Faull, MEd, on what parents can do to encourage kids to take care of their pets.

Q. We have a new kitten and my daughter promises to help out with litter cleaning, feeding, etc. But she has promised before to help out with chores around the house and never does. I'd rather do the work myself than nag. Any way to motivate her to do what she says she'll do?

A. It's best to expect your child to complete only two chores: feed the cat and empty the litter box. Be very specific and demonstrate how she's to proceed. There are many steps involved in each of these chores. You'll need to guide her to learn each of them.

From there, consider these tips:

Schedule Chores. Let your daughter know when to complete each task. For instance, the cat needs to be fed in the morning before breakfast and in the evening before dinner. With this approach, you see that your child doesn't eat her meals until the kitty has been fed. You can use the line, "When you feed the cat then we can start dinner."

Give Reminders. It helps if you post a chart with all the important steps to each chore carefully diagrammed on it. Charts really help little kids learn all the steps involved in a task. Older kids only need a one word written reminder. A sign reading "Cat Box" is all it takes.

Praise Well. Also, when your child performs a chore, be sure to acknowledge her efforts. Notice what she did that's right and then, if necessary, point one a missed step. "Thanks for feeding the kitty. It's nice to see you're taking such good care of her. Be sure to rinse off the spoon and put it in the dishwasher."

Use Empathy to Motivate. "Poor kitty's hungry. She can't fix her own breakfast. Her tummy's probably growling." "The kitty litter box is so dirty. It smells. I bet your kitty doesn't like going potty in it." By doing so, you help you child see from the cat's perspective, which is an important skill to cultivate not only with regards to animals but people, too.

Express Disappointment. If your child forgets to feed the cat or change the litter box, go ahead and voice your concern. "I'm disappointed. You didn't feed the cat before going off to school this morning. I rely on you to complete this chore. The kitty was hungry all day. I fed her when I got home from work."

If she forgets repeatedly to follow through with her kitty-chores, offer a brief reprimand. "I'm angry. I gave you a cat and you agreed to feed her and change the litter box. You're not doing either. I won't take on this responsibility." Your hope is that your child will feel a little guilty and her guilt will motivate her to take care of her kitty responsibilities.

Be Decisive. Animals do provide an avenue for learning responsibilities. If your child flatly doesn't follow through with her promises to care for the cat, then you'll need to decide if you're going to find the cat a new home or complete the chores yourself.

Realize that you, the responsible adult, will always need to remind your child of her chores. In time, she'll end up being a good pet owner but it may not be until she has her very own home and pets.

Jan Faull, MEd, is a veteran parent educator and the author of two parenting books, Mommy, I Have to Go Potty and Unplugging Power Struggles. She writes a biweekly parenting advice column for HealthyKids.com, and a weekly parenting advice column in the Seattle Times newspaper. Jan Faull is the mother of three grown children and lives in the Seattle area.

Originally published on HealthyKids.com, February 2005.

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