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    The Awesomeness of Having Pets

    March 28, 2016 by Brandy Vencel

    Boys can be terribly difficult creatures when they are six. I thought there was something wrong with my oldest child when he was six. A more experienced mother was kind enough to inform me that his troubles were only that which are common to boys, and we’d get through it.

    Around that time, I somehow distilled from reading a lot of Wendell Berry that one thing our son needed was more work to do — real, meaningful work. We chose to buy ducklings — ducklings which quickly grew up to be a flock of laying ducks. These ducks gave our son the work he seemed to need so badly. As ducklings, he kept them warm and fed and watered. He held them and was imprinted on them and so they thought he was their mother. When they were older, they were given a baby pool as their “pond” and every single day he not only fed, watered, and collected their eggs, but he also used his muscles to dump the pool (heavy for a six-year-old) and then filled it back up again.

    If you want to develop some great qualities in your children, make sure they have a pet to love and take care of and then step back and ... awesomeness.

    My youngest son is currently seven, meaning we have muddled our way through having a six-year-old boy twice. (The second time, we were able to laugh more.) Due to zoning changes, we had to get rid of our duck flock before his sixth birthday. We also got rid of our goat flock. This child, unlike his older brother, has had a lot fewer responsibilities in the animal department.

    The need for real work, though, isn’t the only thing involved in having animals, as I’ve written about before. There is a type of love and affection that also ensues, and having something to love and care for — having something that is dependent on you for its survival — is a very formative thing for a child, even if it’s only a goldfish.

    O-Age-Seven has been around a lot of pets, but none of them have been his. Kuyper the Dog officially belongs to my husband, though of course we all share in his care. Sophie the Tortoise is mine. (Yes, I got the minimalist pet.) The girls both have a rabbit. E-Age-Thirteen hasn’t had pets of his own for a while; he misses his ducks, and also the goats we owned until last summer.

    On Thursday, we made a change. There’s a new little guy on the microhomestead, and his name is Oreo. He’s the bunny pictured above. O-Age-Seven had been waiting for six long weeks for Oreo to be ready to leave his mother. He had even saved his Christmas money for this.

    The first thing that happened was that the bunny jumped out of arms mid-purchase and had to be chased down by O-Age-Seven, Q-Age-Nine, the breeder, and myself.

    Thus began my youngest child’s foray into pet ownership.

    One full day in, I found Son O. dancing around the kitchen and, upon questioning, he declared, “I just love Oreo so much!”

    This child has a lot of feelings, and he has been fit to burst most of the weekend.

    Rabbits are an interesting pet to have. On the one hand, they are inexpensive and easily replaced. They only live around 9 years at the most, so they aren’t a terribly long term commitment. They’re inexpensive to feed, and they can be sweet and sociable and cuddly and all the things people generally look for in pets. On the other hand, in the summers they are high maintenance. The heat here can be dangerous, and our children spend no small amount of time keeping their rabbits cool and comfortable — providing them with shade, frozen water bottles and, in moments of desperation, a plunge into a tub of cool water.

    I love pet ownership, even though it can be a hassle. Over the years, we have devoted many days to nursing sick pets and livestock. We’ve cried when we’ve failed and they’ve died despite our best efforts (we’ve lost one goat, two rabbits, and a baby bird, all told). We’ve been annoyed when we were going out of town and wouldn’t this whole process be so much easier if we didn’t have to find someone to care for all of these silly animals?

    And yet.

    Every time one of my children gets a pet for the first time, I see a change. They are so proud to have something to take care of. They work so hard, heading out to the animal pens before breakfast just to make sure everything is all right. They have to become firm — the animal needs to know who is boss (especially if the animal is a goat and has horns, or a dog and has teeth). They have to become careful — clipping nails or hooves and drawing blood is a frightening experience. They have to become self-sacrificing — they cannot play right now because their creature has real needs that come first. They have to become discerning — what does this particular animal like and dislike? What is good or bad for it?

    It’s such an interesting thing, this becoming responsible for a pet.

    I think the key to children being transformed by pet ownership is this combination of love and responsibility. Children who have only the love — the opportunities to play with and enjoy the affection of a creature — may come to see these as serving only for delight or, even worse, a source of selfish entertainment. Children who have only the responsibility — who must clean the stalls, but never enjoy riding the horse — may come to resent the existence of animals entirely. But children who have both the love as well as the responsibility get to richly enjoy their place in the created order.

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    9 Comments

  • Reply Thoughtworthy | Afterthoughts March 2, 2018 at 6:25 am

    […] I wrote this when O-Age-Nine got his very first pet. I still love pets, and I still think they provide all sorts of opportunities to develop character and practice responsibility. ♥ […]

  • Reply Sharron March 30, 2016 at 2:40 pm

    Just curious how much reminding you have to do. Or how you would handle if a 16 and 10 yr old had to constantly be reminded to feed the rabbit!

  • Reply Sharron March 29, 2016 at 6:55 am

    This is a good reminder to those of us who don’t really like pets. I had terrible allergies as a child and couldn’t be around animals, and I still would rather just appreciate their cuteness in pictures! But my husband and youngest daughter love, love them. Several years ago I thought I read somewhere that Charlotte Mason said a child needs something to love and that’s what finally made me cave to getting a dog.

  • Reply Amber Vanderpol March 28, 2016 at 11:27 am

    My 7 yo would absolutely love to have a pet and I think it would be really good for him as well, as you describe. He caught a frog last week and was in tears when his toddler sister accidentally let it out of the makeshift home he had cobbled together for it. I’m not real hot on outdoor pets around here because of all the predators (not to mention the cold – it was just snowing a few minutes ago!) but I’m also not real excited about indoor ones either. 🙂 I’ve had some allergy issues with furry indoor pets in the past and I’m not real excited about experimenting in that area right now.

    We did recently set up a small earthworm habitat, do they count as pets? How about some tadpoles? 😀

    Happy Easter, Brandy!

  • Reply Virginia Lee March 28, 2016 at 7:31 am

    I think you hit the nail on the head. My 10.5 year old son is in charge of our flock of 12 hens. We live in CO, so winters are often hard work when you own chickens. His days start earlier than the other children and his free time can often be cut into as well. But he loves those chickens and works hard for them. He has on his own read multiple books about chicken care, spends time outside just talking to them, and knows those chickens enough that he insists they have different tones that mean different things. The other children enjoy the chickens as well. They like gathering eggs and watching their antics. But my oldest son is the one who has been changed because of a flock of 12 birds put into his care when he was 9 years old. It’s worth all the chicken poop in the world. And believe me, chickens can poop! Ha!

    Rabbits huh? I’ll have to give that some thought. I really prefer outdoor pets. I cannot seem to have babies, young children, and indoor pets at the same time. But my almost 8 year old daughter is chomping at the bit for a pet of her own. Wonder how rabbits do in below zero weather?

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 28, 2016 at 8:14 am

      I prefer outdoor pets, too — though, admittedly, I let the dog sleep in the house at night. I don’t know about rabbits in sub-zero temps. I know that I, personally, would probably die. 🙂 My guess is that there are Ways to help them survive it, but I wouldn’t know what those are. I’m impressed your son is handling chickens at those temps! ♥

      • Reply Sharron March 29, 2016 at 7:19 am

        In our experience, rabbits are fine in really cold weather. They actually are better off outdoors than in because of their thick fur. When it has gotten really, really cold, we’ve put a blanket over their cage because our barn it verrrry old and not any where near warm. But we always take it off in the morning.

  • Reply susan in st louis March 28, 2016 at 5:20 am

    Thanks for sharing this! We recently entered pet ownership as a family with the addition of a tiny (2.5 lb full grown) bunny who is living indoors. He is a family pet, though, so perhaps we need to think about what you said and arrange for more specific responsibilities. We have definitely seen that our son (almost 9) has become the most attached to the bunny. I think that there is something God-given in boys that NEEDS pets!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 28, 2016 at 8:14 am

      I have never tried house-training a bunny, but I hear they do really well at it. How fun!

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