I grew up in a household full of animals. At any given time, we had rabbits (Funny story: we thought we had two sisters ... we did not. We went from two rabbits to 26 in a month!), guinea pigs, fish, dogs, cats, hamsters. Even a frog! I even "rescued" a butterfly, who stayed my constant companion for its short life and refused to fly away. Caring for and enjoying animals was a natural part of my childhood and I couldn't wait to share that with my own children.
Right now, we have a bull dog, Ivy, and a whole slew of fish in a giant tank in the boys' room (I believe their names range from Blackie, Big Fish, Baby Fish, to the Brothers). The host of lessons and teachable moments with these animals as part of our family are endless. With any animal, the opportunity is there to teach:
Teaching your children to be responsible for another life in all its many facets has countless rewards. Not only do they learn to contribute to the care and well-being of others, but they also learn to respect what you do as their parent. As they play "mommy" to their pets, they put someone before themselves, they clean, they work hard. It can be a light bulb moment in communicating family roles and the necessity of everyone's contribution to the greater good.
Teaching your children to recognize the needs of another being and to empathize in a way that prompts action and care is an invaluable life lesson. I truly believe that having a heart for others is a learned skill that comes from seeing that same love and devotion in action in the people surrounding you and from being in an environment that demands and challenges you to consider others before yourself. I want my children to have servant hearts. Caring for their pets is a helpful first step in molding that character trait.
With our specific family pets, we can highlight some specific teachable moments.
Respect for animals/awareness for their natural cues
We spend a lot of time talking about what Ivy is doing and why, and most importantly, what that means for us. Is she resting and should we leave her be? Is she jumping and wants to play? Did she growl and what does that mean? Teaching children that pets are animals and not toys, and to have a healthy respect and awareness for the natural cues they give us as to whether or not they should be approached, gives them the tools to make the best decisions for their safety.
Take this one with a grain of salt, since Ivy isn't loyal to anyone except my husband, but that relationship is truly something to behold. Those two are so stinkin' in love with each other. The sun rises and sets on my husband and that example of true friendship and loyalty is especially important to little boys in my humble opinion. A boy and his dog. Is there anything sweeter?
Need I say more? We are all hoping to maximize every opportunity to teach our children how to follow and appreciate a good routine.
Yeah, this one pretty much speaks for itself too. Watching the relationship develop between hearing a "command," acting on it and the resulting positive reinforcement is a great example for any child.
Here's another safety one. The boys have been taught that we must never approach any animal, especially a dog, from behind or without asking the owner first if it is OK if they pet it. Upon receiving permission, they have been taught to put out their hand and let a dog sniff first, and pet second. Respect.
With our fish, of countless aforementioned names ...
We count our fish in every way possible. By color, by size, by family. Count, count, count. How many fish are eating? How many fish are hiding in the cave? I use every opportunity in that fish tank to get them thinking.
They go to sleep at naps and night time with the tank light on. They find an incredible restfulness and sense of security by watching the peaceful underwater environment ebb and flow. It quiets their spirits and develops their imaginations. They feel content and safe knowing their fishies are "watching over them."
We talk at length about the personalities of our different fish. We have fish that are friends with each other and are inseparable. We have super shy fish that hide and we speak encouragements to them to help them feel more a part of the group. We have the food stealers and the bottom feeders. The schools and the loners. We are learning, albeit on a much smaller scale, to identify emotions and personality through action.
Life and death
Fish come and go pretty frequently. The boys are still a bit young to understand what's happening when we flush a fishy, but I'll continue to talk them through what happened and why, and I'm sure at some point, when they have a better understanding, it will be a teachable moment that it is OK to feel sad and miss someone who leaves, but that we keep on keepin' on.
Pets aren't for everyone. And as a mother of multiples, I'll be the first to say that sometimes you just don't have the resources to properly care for an animal while you can barely survive the day-to-day chaos of the kids. That's perfectly OK. There are a million other just as effective ways to instill these different values and similar activities. If you are a pet owner, or foresee yourself becoming one in the future, keep these helpful tips in mind and use your pet not only as a new family member to love on, but also as a teachable moment for your children as they develop into sturdy, responsible contributing members of society.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on Katy Blevins' blog, Chaos and Kiddos. It has been republished here with permission.