Pets and Children: How to Talk About Pet Parenthood
As children grow up, the “can we get a pet?” conversation with their parents often begins. Whether your children have (or had in pre-pandemic time) a pet in their classroom, spends time with a friend or family member’s pet or wishes they had a dog to walk around the block like the ones they’ve seen in their neighborhood, once the seed has been planted it can be hard to uproot.
Luckily, with the right research and preparation, bringing home a family pet can be a wonderful experience. A pet can help teach children responsibility, potentially increase their opportunities for exercise and time outside (depending on the species of pet you select) and encourage them to bond with animals at a young age.
Before you start shopping for supplies for your new dog, cat or small animal, however, it’s important to talk to the kids about how things will change with the introduction of a pet to the home, including the new responsibilities.
Here are some things to keep in mind and some advice about talking to your children about pet parenthood.
Why having “the pet talk” is important
Even if everyone in the family is on board with getting a pet, bringing one home involves a number of changes that will need to be discussed among your family members. Depending on your children’s ages, you’ll need to clue them in to the fact that taking care of an animal brings a number of daily responsibilities along with it (walking the dog, feeding the fish, scooping and cleaning out the litter box), as well as a potentially large financial responsibility that can last several years depending on the life span of the pet.
Take it slow when discussing pet matters —this shouldn’t be a rushed decision. If your children are young, plan multiple shorter conversations rather than one long one and tailor the topics to their ages and maturity levels. For example, a 4-year-old might understand that getting a pet means they’ll have to help with some form of daily care, but they likely won’t understand the financial responsibility.
School-aged children, on the other hand, may be able to handle more responsibilities when it comes to care, including financially if they receive an allowance or have a job outside of the home. Having conversations about a pet prior to bringing one home can be fun, too, if you include things like doing research together to determine which pet would be best for your family and discussing potential names.
Whatever level of responsibility you decide your children can handle, be sure to take the time to cover all the topics of pet care before bringing home your new family member. These conversations can help prevent surprises.
How to talk to kids about pet parenthood
Again, your children’s ages will dictate exactly what you’ll discuss and how much responsibility you’ll be able to dole out, but some important topics to cover include:
Responsibilities: Discuss each person’s responsibilities prior to bringing home your pet. For example, how often will the kids be expected to take the dog out and what are their responsibilities at mealtimes? Who will scoop poop or clean a small pet’s habitat, and whose job will it be to pet proof your home? Young children will likely start off with fewer daily responsibilities, but it can help to outline what those are ahead of time so that everyone is prepared from day one. If your children are too young to contribute much to pet care in those early months or years, try finding additional ways for them to feel involved, perhaps by asking them to help pick out some toys or bedding for their new pet.
Expectations: Depending on the type of pet you choose, discussion topics might include how often you’ll dole out treats, household rules (Will the new dog be allowed on the couch? Will there be off-limits areas for the cat?) and what form of training you’ll use (Will you work with a professional trainer? What words, like “down” or “off” will you use?). Talk with your kids about your pet’s schedule to ensure someone’s always available to care for them, and set up general guidelines for who is in charge of what and when.
Being realistic: Remember that no matter how much children promise to care for an animal, they’re still children. Expect that some things will slip through the cracks, and be prepared to pick up the slack. With that in mind—and taking into consideration the overall level of responsibility that you believe your child is capable of—you’ll want to be sure you select a pet that you know your household can not only handle, but exceed the care, emotional and physical needs of that pet, especially if you believe the adults will be picking up some (if not most) of the slack at the end of the day. If you know that your work schedule will keep you from being able to walk an active dog twice a day, and you aren’t sure your child can handle that responsibility either, a cat, chinchilla or guinea pig that requires less rigorous daily exercise might be a better option.
Helpful tools for families with pets
After you’ve had all your discussions, settled on everyone’s individual responsibilities and landed on the perfect pet for your family, start setting some systems in place for success. If you’ll be adopting a dog, for example, research dog walkers and positive reinforcement dog trainers in your area prior to bringing your new pet home. You can also set up a shared family calendar—either online or a physical one that hangs in a high-traffic area where no one can miss it—that includes everyone’s daily pet responsibilities. To help reduce the stress that can accompany those first few days and weeks, prep your home as much as you can prior to bringing home your new pet. This might include stocking up on essential items and planning your pet’s first veterinary visit.
Whether your children have already started asking for a pet or you simply want to be better prepared for when that day comes, remember that getting a family pet is an excellent way to bring the whole family together while also teaching your children about responsibility. With a little prep work and some early conversations, you can ensure that your family is as ready as possible to welcome home a new family member.