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    Home Education, Other Thoughts

    The Benefits of Keeping Pets … and Other Creatures

    April 7, 2014 by Brandy Vencel

    I used to be ambivalent about children having pets. Now that we’ve kept Creatures for a number of years, I’ve decided I think that pets are great. Of course, in some situations they just won’t work. If you don’t have the time, or don’t have the appropriate space, pets will just be yet another burden in your life. But if you do have the time and space — or can make the time and space — I think the benefits are huge.

    Now, before I wax eloquent about pets, I think it bears mention that we never had pets until at least one of our children was old enough to care for them. Since I had four children to care for, I really didn’t think that I needed pets. Our first pets — a flock of Khaki Campbell ducklings — didn’t arrive here on the microhomestead until our oldest was age six.

    Pets Give Children Useful Work

    We homeschool {as you know}. This means our children are home all. day. long. every. single. day. They need stuff — useful stuff — to do, since idle hands are the Devil’s plaything and all that. I can only give out so many household chores, you know?

    Once upon a time, when most people lived on farms, children had ways in which they contributed to the household economy. These were real contributions, not just tasks contrived to make children feel like they were contributing. Five-year-olds were retrieving eggs in the mornings. Six-year-olds were making sure livestock had enough water. And so on. These were real jobs that needed to be done, and children happened to be able to do them.

    Over the years, our children have had these truly useful jobs in regard to our animals: feeding them, watering them, locking them up, letting them out, collecting eggs, cleaning up their mess, composting their mess, teaching them to walk on a lead, training them to behave, caring for their wounds, separating babies from moms, helping with the sale of babies, protecting property from Pet Destruction, figuring out what is wrong with them, burying them when they die, rounding them up when they escape, helping to protect them from bad storms, cooling them down when they are too hot, warming them up when they are too cold, and on and on.

    Pets Teach Children Responsibility

    We once had a rule called “Thumper Can Die.” I know this sounds heartless, but Thumper’s Designated Owner was not taking good care of him. All of the other children were told not to help. This child needed to stay on top of her responsibilities, or face the consequences. Most of the time, helping each other is something we encourage, but when helping turned into enabling irresponsible ownership, we took action against that. Thumper survived that rocky period {and passed on later during a pregnancy}, and the owner learned her lesson.

    A child who rescued a baby bird that had fallen from the nest had to stay home to feed the bird, had to get up during the night to feed the bird, had to…well, truly the child briefly experienced a taste of what it is like to have a newborn human to care for!

    Being responsible for a pet is akin to parenthood in certain ways. The child has to think about the needs of something weaker and more helpless than himself. He has to anticipate those needs. He sometimes has to drop what he is doing to take care of those needs.

    Pets Are a Form of Nature Study

    We don’t exactly live in the best place for hiking, and when I still had babies and toddlers, leaving the house felt sort of Not Worth The Effort, if you know what I mean. But my children know a lot about ducks and rabbits and goats and birds because of the animals we’ve owned over the years.

    Many people buy animals because they joined 4H, but we actually joined 4H because we already owned those sorts of animals. As the children have taken classes on their animals, they have learned even more about them — their needs, how their bodies work, signs of sickness, signs of strength, and why they do what they do. They know the different sounds these animals make, and what they mean. They have a level of knowledge about these types of animals in general because of their intimate knowledge of their pets.

    Pets Teach a Bit About the Birds and the Bees

    Our children may not have had The Talk, but they know where babies come from {in general} because of their pets. They know what breeding and mating are. They’ve watched lots of kids be born. They have witnesses goats in labor — contractions, occasional screaming, the whole bit. They know what a placenta is because they’ve seen a number of them. They’ve read up on rabbit breeding because they want to start a little side business selling rabbits for meat. They know what castrating is and that, once that is done, the males can’t produce babies.

    All of this has shown them that making babies is a normal, natural part of life.

    We’ve also had the chance to draw lines between humans and animals. Why don’t animals get married? Why is it okay to use the same buck with more than one doe? Shouldn’t he “marry” one of them? So we talked about how animals are different than humans, how they don’t really make families, and how they don’t have moral laws like we do. That buck is glorifying God by doing exactly what he was designed to do. People glorify God in a different way because they weren’t designed like a buck.

    Pets Teach Children About Death

    A big fear I had when we first bought animals was how it would affect my children if they died. We’ve now lost a lot of animals — a number of ducks, two rabbits, a goat, a bird, etc. You know what? I think it was good for my children to encounter death on a small, manageable scale. They loved their animals, and they were sad when they died. They grieved, they buried, and they eventually moved on.

    I sometimes think that rabbits are good pets because they easily die. It’s a chance for children to learn this sad fact about life.

    I wish it weren’t true that this is something that children needed to taste and know about, but the fact remains that life is full of loss. Having them experience loss in childhood, at home, where they can be taught a bit about grief and recovery, is a Good Thing, I think.

    Something to Love

    These benefits I’ve listed are just a few that come to mind. I think it was Karen Andreola that first said that every day a child needs something to do, something to love, and something to think about. (I don’t know for sure because I’ve never read any of her books — I got this by hearsay.) Animals often provide the first two on that list for our children. They have something productive to do, and creatures to love. If you have ever seen my seven-year-old carrying her poor rabbit around like a teddy bear, you know a bit of what love looks like.

    Something to think about? That part is my job.

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