[dropcap]B[/dropcap]oys 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.
My youngest son is currently seven, meaning we have muddled our way through having a six-year-old 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?
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.
There are many pets which are in common households like, Dog and Cats for instance, but some household have snakes and even a pet tarantula! It goes to show that all animals are welcome in people homes now-a-days. This may sound rather strange but children can enjoy the company of all pets no matter what they are and what the stereotype is that surrounds them.
Or, at least, that seems to me to be the case.
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