Editor's Note: In an ongoing series, Dr. Harley A. Rotbart, a Parents advisor, guest blogs once a month with advice, tips, and personal stories on how parents can "savor the moment" and maximize the time they spend with kids. Read more posts by Harley Rotbart on Goodyblog and on Parents Perspective.
I've been thinking a lot about pets recently. We had to put our beloved 15-year old Springer Spaniel to sleep last week, and it was a great loss for us – Lizzy was our "fourth child," our three kids' best friend, and known to us as the Queen of Fetch. We'd had her since she was a freckle-nosed puppy, and the love and warmth she brought to our family were immeasurable. If you're considering getting a pet—whether it's a puppy, parakeet, goldfish, gerbil, cat, canary, hamster or horse—I have a few words of advice. Get your kids' promises in writing.
There are many benefits of having a pet, and perhaps the greatest are the life lessons you can teach your kids: compassion, responsibility, selflessness, benevolence, and humaneness. Pets can help kids grow their independence, and pets complete a triangle of companionship and love between you and your kids. However, before you decide to add a pet to your family, you need to ignore your kids' verbal promises about taking full responsibility for the new pet they are pleading for. Once the puppy or kitty settles in and the novelty wears off, your kids will forget every vow they made. If your kids talk the talk, they have to walk the walk. And they have to walk the dog with you. Even in the rain or snow. Puddle jumping and snow angels are encouraged.
When our kids were older and we were out in blizzards walking alone with "their dog" because they were busy with homework, after school activities, or playdates, I wished we would have had them sign a "pet contract" when we first brought Lizzy home. As much as our kids loved her and she loved them, when her water bowl was empty, it was almost always Mom or Dad who noticed. Of course when we told the kids the bowl was empty, they filled it. But the next time the bowl was empty, it was again Mom or Dad who noticed. And it was mom or dad who remembered Lizzy needed a walk, a friend to fetch with, or a bath.
The only way to protect yourself from becoming the sole guardian of your kids' pet is with a contract. Contracts may seem a bit intense for a preschooler or kindergartner, but they can be an important life lesson in and of themselves. A commitment is a commitment, and a contract formalizes a commitment. The contract should be a written one so you can hang it on the cage, hutch, or kennel and point to it whenever your kids forget whose pet it is and let the water bowl run dry. It can be as short as a line or two: "I promise that if Mommy and Daddy get a ferret for me, I will feed and water my ferret and help clean the litter. If I don't, I know Mommy and Daddy may have to take my ferret back to the ferret store."
You supervise, but the pet "belongs" to your kids. Of course, it's the whole family's pet, but having your kids take personal "ownership" when they're young is a big part of the commitment life lesson. The time you spend supervising your kids' care for their pet is wonderful quality time—even the walks with your kids and the dog in the blizzard. But "with your kids" is the critical part of that sentence. Don't get caught out in the cold alone with your kids' pet.
Dr. Harley A. Rotbart is Professor and Vice Chairman Emeritus of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and Children's Hospital Colorado. He is the author of four books for parents and families, including No Regrets Parenting and 940 Saturdays. He is also a Parents advisor and a contributor to The New York Times Motherlode blog. Visit his blog at noregretsparenting.com and follow him on Facebook and Twitter (@NoRegretsParent).
Photo of dog by Sara Rotbart.