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5 Ways for Teaching Responsibility With Animals

Do your children want a dog? Here's how to turn their pleas for a pet into an important life lesson.

If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a hundred times: “Can I get a dog? Please?” You look around at the carpet, the hardwood floors and those drapes you spent hours choosing and sigh, knowing how much you would miss them if a pet ruined them. But what if that same furry destructive force could be vital to teaching responsibility to your child?

Pets can teach children to delay their own wants in favor of meeting the animal’s needs. It can be hard to watch that TV show when the dog is whining to go outside. It’s even harder when that child knows he will have to clean up any mess the dog might accidentally make.

So how do you help your child learn to take on the responsibility? Try these tips:

  1. Give Your Child Ownership
    “Our son knew he was in charge of the pet,” says Julie Gild, a mother of three from Nashville, Tennessee. “He begged and pleaded, claiming it was the only thing he wanted for Christmas. I told him that he had to take care of it, because I wasn’t touching a snake.” The 11-year-old has lived up to his mom’s expectations, because she didn’t give him any other choice.


  2. Don’t Rescue Your Child
    Every parent wants to protect her child and no family should ever keep an aggressive or dangerous pet. But it’s important kids learn pets aren’t toys. Pets will hiss, growl or squawk to let children know they’re crossing a boundary. Children should learn to read animals for these warning signs, and learn to use these same observational skills with other people.

    “My youngest has Down syndrome and sometimes has problems with aggression,” says Laura Gabbei, a mother of two from Macomb, Illinois. “Sometimes, he hugs too hard. But the cats will let him know if he’s holding them too firmly or playing with them when they just want to rest. They can’t go to the teacher or other adult to ‘tattle.’ Instead, even though he knows the cats love him, my son has gotten scratched. Instead of getting upset, he is learning boundaries with the animals that are carrying over to other parts of his life.”


  3. Help Your Child Anticipate Consequences
    Animals react without thinking, but you can use this to teach your child to plan ahead. For example, your dog may not realize the ham sandwich in your child’s lunch bag isn’t for him. But if your child leaves the lunch bag on the floor, she may get to school and find nothing but an empty wrapper.

    You can help your child take responsibility by pointing out the importance of keeping food out of the animal’s reach. “Our oldest son really worked hard to keep his room picked up when he understood that it was vital to the health and safety of the cats,” says Gabbei. “He’s really taking responsibility in new ways.”


  4. Keep High Expectations
    While the puppy or kitten is new, children will do anything to take care of the lovable fur ball. But as time passes, it’s easy for kids to relax and let mom and dad take over. That only works if parents allow it to happen. Of course, the needs of the animal must be met if the child has soccer camp or a slumber party, but the child should take back over as soon as possible.


  5. Encourage Your Child to Financially Support the Pet
    While no parent should expect a young child to be completely financially responsible, it’s reasonable to expect the child to help with the pet’s upkeep. Depending on your child’s age, this might mean using birthday money to buy a toy the child and pet can use together. An older child might do extra chores to pay for treats or a special training class.

How are you teaching responsibility regarding pets? Tell us below. If you’re in the market for a family pet, check out Best Pets for Kids at Every Age and Stage.

Shellie Braeuner, is an award-winning children’s author. She earned an M.Ed from Vanderbilt in human developmental counseling and has worked as a nanny for more than 25 years. She is currently working on her MFA in writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts.