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Should I Buy My Child A Pet?

The decision to get a pet for the first time when you have children can be a confusing one. Most children go through periods where they desperately want an animal - especially if they've never owned one before. Having a child beg you daily for a pet can wear you down, and cause you to act hastily without fully considering the reasons for and practicalities and ramifications of owning a pet. While pets can be a wonderful learning experience for children, and can bring joy into the lives of children and parents alike, there are several factors you might want to consider prior to actually obtaining one.

* Is it practical?

Manhattanites are not known for having vast expanses of space within which to operate. Are you thinking about an animal that's appropriate for the amount of space you have? Will the addition of this animal make it cramped or difficult to function? In addition, practically speaking, the more cramped you are, the more likely it is that even small, caged animals will awaken you in the night with their noise, however slight it may be. One mother told me that it was like having an infant again - she was being awakened several times a night by her daughter's new hamster - sometimes it was banging its water bottle on the cage, other times running in its wheel. Because she lived in a studio apartment, there was no place she could put the hamster at night that was out of earshot. She admitted that she hadn't thought through the practicality of owning a pet prior to purchasing one.

* Are you an "animal person?"

Sometimes parents get an animal because their child has desperately begged and pleaded for one. Carried away by visions of kittens curled up cozily on rugs, warmly lit by a roaring fire, or by puppies quietly asleep at the foot of one's bed, they fail to take into consideration whether they themselves enjoy animals. This is a crucial factor. When a pet of any sort comes into your home (be it a hermit crab or a golden retriever) your children will look to you for cues as to the kind of treatment it should receive, the kindness it should be shown. One family reported that they had a cat which urinated all over everything - furniture, shoes, rugs. The parents became increasingly, and understandably, angrier and angrier. While never inflicting any physical harm upon the animal, they spoke disparagingly of it, talked to and about it rudely, and basically hated having it in the house. In short, their anger got in the way of appropriate role modeling. It would have been far better for them to not have had the cat at all. Before you bring an animal into your home, make sure you're willing to experience both the joy and the frustration that it might bring.

* Will the pet belong to the family, or to your child?

If you're getting an animal for your child to own, as opposed to a "family pet," consider your child's age when deciding whether this a realistic decision. Children younger than nine may be capable of taking care of some of the animal's needs on a regular basis, but probably not without some reminders. Even after age nine, full responsibility for a pet - including cage or litter box cleaning, walking (in the case of a dog), feeding, watering, as well as financial responsibility -- is a big undertaking. Think through what ownership really means. Does it mean your child must feed and water the pet? How much are you willing to help your child? What items is your child responsible for buying out of his allowance? What about veterinarian bills? Thinking through what "ownership" of an animal means is important in being able to concretely explain to your child what your expectations are. Most animals wind up being "family pets" even if you've said that the pet belongs to your child.

* Are you getting a pet to teach your child responsibility?

Simply having a pet doesn't necessarily teach responsibility to a child. If this is your only reason for getting one, you should think through your decision carefully. Responsibility is taught primarily through a series of explanations about rules or boundaries, with parents structuring carefully planned choices and consequences for their children. To truly teach responsibility through pet ownership, you would have to be willing to allow your child to experience the consequences of failing in that responsibility. Most parents aren't willing to do this, given that an animal is a live being with certain rights of its own. Many families have told me that they originally bought a pet specifically for this purpose, but as their child failed to live up to the various responsibilities associated with having the pet (feeding, cleaning, etc.) the parents took the responsibility upon themselves. The child is left with two possible thoughts: "I failed at being responsible," and / or "When I fail to be responsible, it's o.k., because someone will bail me out." Neither of these messages is particularly positive. If you want owning a pet to teach your child responsibility, think through ahead of time which specific things you will hold your child accountable for, and what the consequences will be if your child does not carry through on her duties.

* Are you getting a pet because you have an only child, and believe it's good for only children to have pets?

Again, if this is your only reason for getting an animal, think through your decision carefully. First of all, children who grow up without siblings are not necessarily lonely. Many children thrive as the only child in their household, and even feel privileged to not have the conflict that they see their peers having with their siblings. I've known parents of only children who believe getting a pet was the greatest decision they ever made, and those who believe it was the worst. One single mother reported that getting a puppy for her daughter was the best thing she'd ever done. Her daughter had connected well with the animal, and seemed happier and less moody than before. Another mother, who'd gotten a puppy for her son for the same reasons, told me it was the worst decision she'd ever made. The dog was the brunt of untold "sibling rivalry" from her son. While he never injured the dog, and even seemed to like it on occasion, he also did things like dumping it in the hamper and covering it with clothes, then letting it whine in there until his mother found it and removed it herself. In addition, he became very clingy with his mother, and seemed jealous of any attention she gave the dog. Still another parent discovered that her child was afraid once she brought an animal into the house, and she ended up having to give it away.

Animals can be an amazing source of love and joy. They can help teach kindness, responsibility and nurturing. They can amuse, entertain and satisfy. In order for your child to truly benefit from having a pet, however, you must take the decision seriously, and think through your reasons for getting a pet and what that will mean - both for your child and for your household.