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The Informed Parent

Santa, I Want A Pet!

by Carolyn Warnemuende, M.S.
Published on Dec. 04, 2006

By now, Christmas decorations have been up for several weeks. Advertisements with carols and bells entice children toward the latest toy fads. Parents get bombarded with holiday wish lists that change by the day.

Often children ask for a pet. Sometihmes it may be a pet in general with no specifics included. Other times great detail is provided. "I want a doggie that's black and white with a cute little tongue that hangs out and a tail that wags all the time."

When a pet is definitely out of the question as a Christmas or holiday gift, it's best to be honest from the beginning. If the children believe in Santa Clause, you might say, "I have talked to Santa, and this year he has other plans for our family." If children are beyond believing, tell them straightforwardly that they will not receive a pet for a gift and provide a brief reason. For example, you might explain that pets aren't allowed in your apartment or that we are not home enough to provide the care that pets need.

This issue can escalate into a power struggle before you know it. Children will give you many reasons why a pet is definitely a good choice and you will want to convince them that it is not. It's best to be short in your explanations and not become involved in a discussion that cannot be resolved.

On the other hand, when such a suggestion is a consideration some guidelines can assist in a choice that provides the best opportunity for a good pet/family match. A good match provides the greatest likelihood for long-term success.

Renowned pet trainers and authors Sarah Wilson and Brian Kilcommons suggest the following guidelines:

Give a pet that your child can be successful with now

Small, very young, or impulsive children have not developed the ability to be gentle. A larger, calm animal can be a good choice. Older or particularly sensitive children may do well with birds, hamsters, or mice as well as with larger animals. If children are to take full enjoyment from being a pet owner the animal must fit their developmental level. Instead of choosing a pet that children can grow into, it's best to choose one that fits current abilities.

Before purchasing a pet, learn about its needs and habits

How much space does it need? Is it nocturnal? What diet does it require? Does it need consistent temperature? Knowing what a pet requires for optimum health before it becomes a family member saves grief caused by having to give it away or having it die prematurely.

Be prepared to care for the pet

No matter how much children love their animals much of the care falls on the parents' shoulders. If you are unable or unwilling to take on this responsibility, a pet is not for your family. Young children are unable to care for them by themselves. It must be a team effort between older and younger children, or children and parents. Older children often have full schedules that no longer provide time for animal care. Buying pet food and providing visits to the vet are your job.

Caring for pets can teach responsibility

Animals offer a fine opportunity for teaching responsibility and learning to care for living creatures. Children can learn to feed them, gently love them and help keep their environment clean. Nonetheless, Wilson and Kilcommons say, "No matter what lessons you hope your child will learn from this experience, the animal doesn't exist to teach." Children are simply not capable of taking on the full care of a pet. A pet needs to be a shared responsibility between parents and children.

An animal can provide years of joy when the decision to bring it into the family is carefully made and the choice fits a child's age and ability. Playing with a pet and watching its development and antics often result in lifelong memories.

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