When Are Your Kids Old Enough for a Pet?

When Are Your Kids Old Enough for a Pet?

Image credit: Magdalena Oppenheimer

Adding a pet to your Solo Mom family

Your younger child is negotiating for a llama. Or an eagle. Or an otter. Relentlessly. Your older child has figured out a new tack: the zoo is boring; he wants something alive to hold and care for—and he’ll do chores.

Is it time to get a pet? you ask yourself. When will your kids be old enough? As a Solo Mom, I have to let you in on a little secret: you’re asking the wrong question. Let me put in another way: How much more nagging are you willing to do?

Think about it. Right around this time, as your kids are beginning to have lives of their own, you suddenly experience a spectacular moment in which you look around and think to yourself, Wow, there is nothing that I have to do right now—not for the next 15 minutes. So will this be a time when you say to yourself, It’s time to get a pet?

Or course not! But you ask yourself the question anyway because, as a Solo Mom, you are building your family—and face it, pets are part of a family. They give a sense of stability, a feeling of home, and frankly, as your kids get older, pets might even fill in for the helpless infants you so adored.

So here is the bottom line: When are your kids old enough to care for a pet? Never. Should you get a pet anyway? Absolutely.

Some good and bad news

The good news with pets is that they are similar to babies in terms of routine and mess, and different in that they never outgrow this phase. Wait—maybe that’s the bad news, but you know what I mean. Frankly, it can be charming and a bit annoying at the same time, not unlike your own children. But unlike your own teenage children, pets do not know how to do an eye roll. And they are not sarcastic—not even cats.

A few delusions and facts about pet ownership

Starting small. You decide that if your kids can demonstrate that they can take care of a fish, a lizard, or a guinea pig, that’s when they can move up to something that requires a bit more responsibility. You start small, and then you will get the animal they are begging for.

Delusion. You may end up with a menagerie. First a fish. Then a hamster—then, finally, the dog they actually want. Each new pet will be the only one receiving attention from its new young owners. So if your kids want a dog, look into the best dogs for kids, and dive in and get that one. The same goes for buying a kitten. Because trust me—there is nothing fun about the smell of a dirty hamster cage.

Lessons in responsibility. By getting a pet, my children will learn to care for animals and gain life lessons.

Delusion. Chores are chores. You think that if your kids love their pets, they will readily take care of them. Kids will be nice to your pets, but they probably won’t be more likely to do the chores involved with pet care. Feed them? Pick up hairball barf? Walk them? When they remember. Or when they don’t have other things to do. They’ll take endless pictures, pour overflowing bowls of food, and grab the leash when reminded. But you will have to remind them.

The furry factor. Having something alive to care for is a good thing for kids emotionally.

Fact. As your children hit their tweens, caring for an animal can be a great thing. Puberty can be tough, and the unconditional love a pet provides can be a cushion for those tough tween years. Sometimes, having another creature depend on your tween may help her look outside herself and focus on something other than her own wants and needs. It can teach your child to be less inner focused and selfish. Your child’s care will be rewarded with the love only a pet can give. Maybe the unconditional love that a pet provides will reinforce your child’s attempts to care for it. But be aware that loving an animal can have a downside.

The ew factor. Animals are great as long as they’re not sick, destructive, or needy, which, of course, they are. They will sometimes scratch furniture, get sick, or pee where they shouldn’t. Your kids will help, or try to, but are they capable of properly caring for an animal that is not being on its best behavior? Yes and no.

Delusion and fact. Yes, your children will care. They will worry. But they are probably not capable of the intense, consistent care that an animal who is acting up requires. They may be quick to blame you and become disinterested in the animal. So, the care of the animal will, once again, fall on you.

Which leads me to my point and my big surprise: your kids are ready for pets when you are. The fact is, these animals are really going to be your animals, no matter what your offspring vow. Your kids will go off to camp and sleepovers, will go on trips, and then go off to college. And there you will be . . . the cat/dog/bird lady who talks to wordless creatures like they are little people, and you’ll probably love it. You will tell your children how much Fido or Felix misses them when actually you and the animal(s) are hanging out at night together, enjoying each other’s company.

That’s why when you go looking for a pet, get one that you want because in the end, that pet is going to be yours for quite some time.

Margot Kessler, a screen and television writer living in Los Angeles, is the sporadically witty Solo Mom of two lovely daughters.

Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.

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