How Old Should My Child Be?

by Mary Jane Checchi

Baby and dog photoOne of the pet-related questions that parents most frequently ask is, "How old should my child be?" My response is, "How old for what?"

If a parent actually is asking, "How old should my child be before she can take full responsibility for a pet?" my answer is, "Probably not until she is an adult." Even the most responsible, mature, and well-intentioned child usually is not up to such a commitment, which involves daily care and may last as along as twenty years (in the case of a cat) or more (for some birds).

Although your ten-year old may sincerely mean it when he says, "I promise, promise, promise that I will feed and exercise and groom my dog every day, " he is not developmentally at an age when a commitment extending years into the future has meaning.

Children are busy -- just like parents. Who will walk the dog, scoop the kitty litter, clean the hamster cage while your youngster: goes away to summer camp; gets a weekend job; joins the band or the basketball team and practices after school every day; lands a part in the school play and doesn't make it home until after dinner six weeks in a row?

Who will feed the bird, bond with the bunny, supervise the guinea pig when your teenager graduates from high school and leaves home to: attend college, take a job in another state, or move into an apartment that doesn't allow pets?

In one way or another, parents usually end up being the primary pet caretaker. Thus it is important for parents not to agree to get a pet unless they themselves like this companion animal (the species, the breed, the individual), want him or her to be part of the family, and are willing to care for him or her. At a minimum, parents are called upon to be pinch-hitters, and to supervise and help educate their children about care of the pet.

While most children cannot realistically be expected to take on a pet's full care, there are tasks that children can do -- and should. In caring for a pet, a child can form a deeper bond with the pet, one that can enrich a young person's life. While giving care, a child develops a greater understanding of the animal's nature, behavior, and needs, and usually becomes more empathetic and loving toward this non-human friend -- and other ones as well: children who care for pets are less likely to be afraid of, and more likely to be interested in, other animals. Perhaps most important, caring for another living creature, and being needed in this way, is one of the most satisfying human experiences -- one that, in my opinion, contributes mightily to character and to happiness.

As part of the pet selection process, parents should make a realistic assessment of their children's ability to help care for a pet. They should consider each child's age, personality, preferences, and traits. One child -- we'll call him Donnie -- may be active and athletic. His parents may be able to count on him to run and play with a large, energetic dog almost daily, and so he can be responsible for his dog's daily exercise. With a little reminding, he will also feed his pet. Donnie would have little patience for, or interest in, a small mammal or bird, and probably not enough patience to thoroughly groom a dog.

Megan, on the other hand, is quieter and gentler than Donnie, although both are eight years old. She is less likely to want to roughhouse outdoors. Megan will quietly watch, hold and feed a pair of gerbils without causing them harm or fright, and can be counted on to do so almost daily. She is not strong enough to single-handedly lift the gerbil's tank to empty and clean it, and needs an adult's help with this task.

Parents need also consider a child's physical and emotional development when trying to estimate how much a child can help with pet care. Because every child develops at her own rate, in her own way, this is an individual matter. One six-year old may be capable of gently lifting a tiny hamster, but most are not. One twelve-year-old may be strong enough to restrain an excited, aggressive Doberman, but most are not.

Finally, information about the prospective pet's needs, nature, physical characteristics, and temperament is a key ingredient for assessing a child's proper role when it comes to pet care. Most parents know intuitively that a six-year-old should not be asked to walk on leash an excitable, strong, sixty-pound Boxer. Consciously or not, they have calculated the Boxer's strength and temperament and weighed these against the child's abilities.

But a mistake that is often made is to assume that a "small" pet such as a gerbil, hamster, rabbit, or guinea pig can be cared for by "small" children. In fact, the reverse is often true: small pets are fragile and easy to injure. Young children (up to age six, seven, and even eight) lack the muscle coordination to gently handle these small creatures, and most have not developed sufficient impulse control to stop themselves from squeezing or teasing. Very young children (toddlers, and even three- and four-year-olds) do not understand that their actions can cause fear or pain in an animal. All of these perfectly normal characteristics of childhood can lead to injury for the pet or the child.

Delegating to a child a task that is beyond his ability is a prescription for failure. The pet will suffer, and so will the child. The best insurance against this happening is information and planning.

Parents should:

  • Learn about a pet's nature and needs before selecting one to bring home.
  • Evaluate a child's ability to help care for the desired pet.
  • Delegate, teach, and supervise pet care chores that are within the child's abilities.
  • Accept responsibility for being the pet's primary caretaker.
  • Teach the child how to be the pet's best friend.

With these few and simple guidelines, a new pet in the family can truly be fun for all.