Pets are universally hailed as a great way to teach children responsibility. After various and multiple animals have lodged at my residence, I’ve discovered that pets also teach children about courage, tenderness, commitment and death.
Whenever one of my children asks for an animal I carefully inform them that I have enough living creatures to house and feed. So if they want a pet, they have to be the one who takes care of them. I let them practice being responsible for a sibling’s pet for a few weeks to see if they are really up to the task.
Each of my eager children quickly demonstrates their budding reliability with a responsible week or two and then this incessant plea, “So can I get my own bunny today? Please. Please. Please.”
Inevitably I am forced to keep my promise and we bring home yet another bunny, flock of chickens or pigeons, cat or duck. Though my child is naive and unaware, I know what’s coming. Everything will go well for a while. This day after day responsibility of caring for a pet begins a tender kind of attachment my child has never felt before. Even after caring for their human siblings, my child knows that someone else is ultimately responsible. They know someone else does most of the work; someone else does most of the sacrificing.
When you willingly take on the total responsibility for another living being, something changes inside your soul. This swelling of heart in your own child is a gentle and moving event to witness. I find my previously frightened little girl braving a blizzard to check on her pet rabbit. I discover my ten-year-old son who has always been terrified of dogs, bravely defending his flock of chickens against huge stray mongrels. I find a mostly self-absorbed teenager tenderly stroking his pet cat. None of this courage, devotion or tenderness is required when I ask my child to pick up their room or clean up the dishes after supper. After all this personal daily effort to keep their pet alive, they learn what it means to be loyal and committed and what it feels like to love in a deep and profound way.
Then it happens . . . someone lets their dog run loose again and my child is forced to face the dark side of death. When my young son or daughter goes back to check on their furry companion they find instead an empty cage, or the remnants of their pet in feathers or left over body parts. After this tragic and horrible experience, I find myself trying to comfort an inconsolable weeping child. I always long to place their beloved companion back into their empty aching arms.
So we talk about how their pet will someday run toward them and jump into their arms in heaven. We discuss bunny cloud nine or pigeon paradise. Yet in the end, nothing can truly comfort a child who has sacrificed, cared for, played with and taken pleasure in their living companion.
So when my children plead for yet another pet, I ask, “Are you sure you want to do this?” What I’m really thinking is, “Am I sure I can go through this with my child again?” And the answer is always - yes- because there is a gift a child receives when they love and care for animals. This gift gets them ready to love and care for each other. The child, who strokes their dying bunny, will someday become the adult who knows how to commit to, sacrifice for and love their own spouse and children. For personal sacrifice, commitment and courage teach all of us to truly value those we care for and love.