Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Pets & kids: The realities



Welcome to the June 2014 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Kids and Animals

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama. This month our participants have shared stories and wisdom about kids and pets.





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Pets & kids: The realities == Hobo Mama

When I was growing up, we always had pets: always at least one cat, for a long while a dog, and a pair of gerbils or a goldfish here and there. I knew when we had kids, I wanted to give them that same experience of growing up with animals to love, care for, and form attachments with.

But I also had commonsense. Here are some of the basic facts I've learned — as a child and now as a parent — about how kids and pets interact and what to expect if you're adding a fur friend to a baby family, or a baby to a fur-friendly family.

Kids and certain pets aren't always best friends.

Pets & kids: The realities == Hobo MamaWe had an older cat when I was very young who did not want to play with me. Most of my interactions concerning her were asking my mother for another bandage to cover the latest scratch. I've had smaller pets such as gerbils and fish who didn't relish any human companionship. So when Mikko was born when Sam's and my first cat, Mrs. Pim, was already firmly an adult, I didn't expect love at first sight — and I was right. She let Mikko adore her from afar, and that was good enough for both of them. As she became used to him, she let him brush her, and as a toddler and preschooler, he helped me feed and water her, scoop her litter box, and play with pole toys. Forcing ornery pets and babies or toddlers together before the animals are ready is just asking for trouble — and a dwindling supply of Band-Aids.

Pets & kids: The realities == Hobo Mama

Pets might not mean the same thing after children.

Before I had kids, I was a cat sitter, and I'd become concerned anytime a client who was a parent mentioned how little attention they had for their cats now that they had children. Once I became a parent, I got it. Kids take up so much more energy that there's often little left over to give, and you realize that your pets don't need you as desperately as your children do. I don't mean to suggest that neglecting animals you already have is acceptable, but be aware that your feelings for your pets might change. Continue to go through the rote actions you need to take (feeding, grooming, playing, petting), and the feelings will likely come back, even if they're different now. And try not to bring in more pets than you have the capacity to care for, along with your parenting duties. Speaking of which:

Whatever family pet you get is your responsibility.

No matter what your older kids promise you, expect that you'll be supervising and maybe taking over care of any pets that come into the family. I've heard horror stories of parents "teaching kids a lesson" by letting neglected pets die, and I'm just going to assume no one here would be so cruel to both an animal and a child. I know as a kid, my brother and I swore up and down that we would care for our own kittens — but my dad ended up doing the bulk of the feeding and scooping unless we were reminded — often (and, to his credit, he did it without complaint). I did have a friend who successfully cared for her own hamster as a preteen, so it is possible to transfer responsibilities, but you're still going to need to set expectations, check that they're being carried out appropriately, and be prepared to take over if needed. Even if a tween or teen child is competently caring for a pet, consider that such children might age out of your home before the pet does — when I went off to college, my dad was now sole care provider for my cat. My rule for our family is we don't get pets I don't want to care for. This is why we don't have a dog. We live on a second-floor condo, and I know I'd be the lucky one walking the dog twice a day, rain or shine, and scooping up warm poop with my baggied hand. No, thank you! Not until and unless we ever have a yard.

Find child-appropriate tasks that work for your kids.

Pets & kids: The realities == Hobo Mama
I didn't mean to be such a downer in the last point, because I do still think that pet ownership can help teach responsibility and care for animals. I'm writing this from the perspective of a non-farm family, so I expect that families with large amounts of animals are even better at involving children in their care. But for us, there are some simple things that even little kids can and will do. For instance, Alrik at three loves to help me scoop the kitties' food into their bowl. Is it faster for me to do it alone? Yes. Yes, it is. But he loves to stand up on his little chair at the counter, pull out the spoons (one for me, one for him), and glop the food into the dishes, then stir. He'll also put it down for the cats and then try to cajole them into eating it by yelling at them. (They love this.) (Not really.) Mikko at seven is in a phase where he's always trying to earn money, so he'll scoop the litter boxes (yea for me!) or play with the feather toy (this is the best one ever) for a certain number of minutes to earn some coinage. Other tasks might include giving a pet water, brushing, cleaning out a cage or tank, taking a dog for a walk, playing with or picking out toys, scooping poop out of the yard (that sounds like a good money earner!), exercising a small pet, bathing a dog, participating in obedience classes, visiting the vet, and — how could I forget? — giving treats. Giving treats is firmly in the domain of our kidlets. They love fish flakes themselves, so it's one handful for the cats, one for us, repeat. (Do I have weird kids? I'm just glad they're eating some protein!)

Pets & kids: The realities == Hobo Mama

Pets can teach kids about aging and death.

Speaking of downers, animals tend to age faster than humans, and sometimes they catch diseases or have accidents or other complications that are untreatable. If you have pets, you're opening the door to frank talks about getting older and dying, and some potentially heartbreaking moments. Mrs. Pim died when Mikko was three and I was pregnant with Alrik, and that led to many (good yet hard) discussions about illness and death that continue to this day, three and a half years later. Sometimes pets have to be rehomed due to incompatibilities with other residents (allergies, aggression, etc.), and that can be a difficult process as well. I still remember all the pets' departures from my childhood, and each one was a small trauma. But my parents were there to help me through them, as you can be for your kids.

Pets are worth it.

Pets & kids: The realities == Hobo Mama
Despite all the facts — pets are hard work, that work will fall to you, and eventually they get sick and die — I'm still a believer in kids growing up with animals to love. I'm rational about it — as I mentioned, I'm refusing to get a dog until it's a lot more convenient for us as a family, and I hold off on acquiring new animals when I'm simultaneously going to have a newborn. For instance, I've been seriously considering adopting a hedgehog, but I'm waiting till the pregnancy's over (there are a few random nasties one can catch from small critters that I'd do well to avoid during my little one's most vulnerable phase) and, thereafter, until I catch my breath again from having three not-so-furry babies to care for. I also wouldn't mind having fish or some other tank-bound creature at some point, but I want to think carefully about what I'm up for. So, even though Mikko begs pretty much weekly both for a dog and for his own new kittens (more than two huge cats in our tiny apartment? No, thank you), we're sticking with our kitties for now, and I'm so happy to see our kids bond with them. One is still plenty skittish about both of them, but the other is warming up enough to sit on Mikko's lap and let Alrik accost her. I think there's something meaningful in teaching kids from a young age how to care about and care for a creature who needs attention and love. You're helping kids understand that other creatures have needs as real as and sometimes different from theirs, and that they need to learn how to interact respectfully with their fur-relatives. I'm glad my kids will be growing up with memories of these cats we picked out and adopted together and now help to feel part of our family. Next on Mikko's docket: Throw them a birthday party! (I have no idea when they were born, but that sounds like a fine idea!)

What have your experiences been with kids and pets, either as a child or as a parent?

Pets & kids: The realities == Hobo Mama




Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:
  • HOW PETS CONNECT WITH EMOTIONS: KIDS & PETS AFTER 9-11 — Parenting Expert Laurie Hollman at Parental Intelligence discusses the importance of pets in lowering stress after traumatic situations, why children choose certain pets, the loss of a pet, and the role of parents in teaching care-giving to animals in a warm, gentle way.
  • It's not our house without a dog! — Amy at Me, Mothering, and Making it All Work describes why giving a loving and disciplined home to at least one shelter dog at a time enriches the life of her family, and has become a vivid memory in the minds of her children.
  • Canine Haikus
    Kids, dog, haikus, at
    Dionna (Code Name: Mama).
    Pet-centric poems.
  • Beanie's BunniesOur Mindful Life's Sofi Bean has gotten her first pets!
  • Montessori Care of Pets — Deb Chitwood at Living Montessori Now tells about her experiences with kids and pets and shares Montessori resources for pet care.
  • How to Nurture Your Child's Awareness of Spirit Guides — Jennifer at Hybrid Rasta Mama hosts a post from her regular contributor Lauren of SpiralElixir.com. Lauren looks at the concept of animals as spirit guides and how deeply children are connected to this realm. She also encourages us to open ourselves up as parents to the reality that children are naturally more connected to the animal world, giving us ideas on how to nurture their relationships with their Spirit Guides.
  • No Puppy! — Meg at the Boho Mama shares her tips for dealing with toddlers and the (very real) fear of animals.
  • Year of the Pets — Jorje of Momma Jorje wasn't sure she ever wanted pets again, but things have changed a lot this year!
  • 3 Reasons Why Keeping Backyard Chickens is Good for my Toddler — Bianca, The Pierogie Mama, started keeping backyard chickens for the benefit of their eggs, but what she wasn't prepared for was what they would teach her two year old daughter too.

17 comments:

Laura said...

Pets ARE worth it. Every poop picked up, every snotty sneeze right when you open your mouth to eat, every codependent whine when you leave for the market. I couldn't imagine our lives without animals... even the scores of birds who come to visit our bird feeder! I think my introverted self needs the quiet companionship that accepts me without explanation. and Loves my babies... even it is mainly because they have the food.

Crunchy Con Mommy said...

I think that's really sensible to assume the adults will ultimately need to be willing to care for any pet adopted! I remember caring for pets myself by about 4th grade...I think ;)

Dionna @ Code Name: Mama said...

I've been super pleased with how much the kids have taken on responsibility for Hans. Ailia feeds him just about every meal (this is also part of my plan to make sure Hans knows that Ailia is also one of his pack leaders), and Kieran takes him outside to potty a *lot*. They also help me brush him, and they're taking part in his training. It has been awesome!!

Amy Willa said...

We love all taking part in caring for our dog, Mya. It teaches the kids personal space, to care for others, kindness, responsibility, discipline, and best - LOVE. Pets aren't for everyone, but they certainly are for us.

Kellie Barr said...

Many good points here! We had to rehome a dog when he never was able to accept Sofi and finally bit her when she was 4. It was heartbreaking, but it was needed. We still have a dog and a cat, and now Sofi's 2 bunnies, and the kids do a lot of their care. But, you are right, my to do list says "Feed Pets" and every morning and evening. I check to see that the children have fed them. When everyone is too busy to feed the dog, I am the one who ends up doing it. ;)

LB Present said...

I agree! Pets are worth it. Pets can add so much to life and they certainly are avenues of so many life lessons with children.

My hope is that I can be a good mama to an animal, while still constantly being pulled in many directions as a human mama! :)

articles said...

Great points! We had two gerbils when our son was 3-6 years old, and he was devastated when they died--both in the same week, possibly because they were brothers and the survivor was so traumatized by being alone. 3 years later he is still sad about it occasionally.

He'd love to have a cat now, but neither parent wants to take care of a cat--too smelly at both ends! As you said, parents have to be prepared to do a lot of the pet care. We would rather have a rabbit (as we did before our son was born) but with a new baby, we aren't ready now.

Lauren Wayne said...

@Laura: Ha, your second sentence is cracking me up! Yes. I love, too, that dogs will attach to kids who drop food. ;) That's certainly how mine came to love me when I was a kid!

Lauren Wayne said...

@Crunchy Con Mommy: Yeah, ask your parents — ha ha!

Lauren Wayne said...

@Dionna @ Code Name: Mama: That's a great idea to have Ailia help feed Hans! I'm so glad to hear the kids have really bonded with their new puppy.

Lauren Wayne said...

@Kellie Barr: Yes, it really can be necessary to rehome when there's aggression like that. I remember friends who had to rehome a beloved dog (fortunately to a sister of the husband) when their kids developed severe allergies. Things happen, and kids have to come first.

I love your comment about making sure the pets are fed: Yup! I was saying how Mikko's taken over control of the litter boxes. Only, you know, when he doesn't feel like it, and then it's my turn. ;)

Lauren Wayne said...

@LB Present: It does stretch your love in all directions, doesn't it!

Lauren Wayne said...

@articles: We had brother gerbils who did the same thing! One died, the other moped for a week and then seemingly died of a broken heart. That's one of my fears of adopting a smaller pet — the smaller lifespans that go along with that.

I agree about waiting till you're through with the bulk of new-baby care before taking on another baby animal! A rabbit will be fun, though, when you're ready. I feel the same about waiting for my hedgehog, though Mikko's less patient about it, heh.

survivingmexico said...

A great list to consider when getting a pet! I especially liked your comment that animals have personalities just like humans. This makes human-animal interaction tricky sometimes.

Deb Chitwood said...

Great points, Lauren! My husband and I were lucky that our kids took good care of their pets as preteens and teens. We did end up taking care of our daughter's cat for a few years when our daughter lived in England. Now that our daughter lives in the U.S., she and her husband take care of her cat again. :)

Inder-ific said...

Both of our dogs recently died within six months of each other, so we are currently dealing with the painful reality of pets. Joe learned, very suddenly, with no gradually growing awareness, that everyone dies, and it's a tough realization for anyone, let alone a five year old! He is now asking how many days until I die, and will I be sad when he dies?

I know we will get another dog at some point - it's so strange not having a dog in the house!

Anyway, yes, pets. It is lovely and sad, just like real life.

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