Fish tales and childhood responsibilities

Editor’s note: This column is the third in a series about pets and children. You can access the first two installments at http://www.henricocitizen.com/index.php/Opinions.

When a family purchases a pet, parents have visions of their child’s growing responsibility and expansion of character. But when it came to our border collie pup, Toby, the dog brought on nothing but extreme paranoia.

If there was one thing my kids loved more than all else in their lives three years ago, it was their stuffed animal collections. Toby found that he loved them too. They made such a satisfying ripping noise when he gutted them down their seams, and their eyeballs popped off so nicely. And their inside stuffings! Pure heaven to gouge out with his paws.

My son and daughter, aged 9 and 6 at the time, learned quickly to leave their furry friends in their upstairs bedrooms, with their doors firmly closed. But every once in a while, a chosen animal would find its way downstairs, and before anyone knew it, the living room was littered with an unrecognizable carcass and yards of fluff.

They also learned to keep their shoes in the garage and their jackets in the closet, for Toby was known to gnaw gaping holes in any and all clothing and accessories. They learned to put their outdoor toys back in the garage when they were done playing with them, for Toby found sporting equipment tasty too. Baseball gloves, snow saucers, wiffle balls, lacrosse sticks, basketballs – they all found their way into Toby’s mouth of destruction.

Paranoia became a useful tool for tidying the house and backyard, but it wasn’t doing much for inciting my children’s love and affection for their new pet. And my kids truly love animals of all kinds. They would come home from play dates full of descriptions of the menageries at their friends’ houses. I suspected they spent most of their time playing with the pets instead of with the friends that invited them over.

They soon started begging for a new pet, and Toby – who equaled the work of about five pets, in my estimation – wasn’t even a year old. The pet of choice changed from day-to-day: budgie birds (preferably a few so they could fly around together in a closet all day), a pair of chinchillas (they are much happier with a partner in their cage), rabbits, cats, another dog, a frog, a parrot.

Pregnant with my third child, I’d scoffed at the suggestions, saying that their new baby sister would be their new pet. I had an idea of who would be taking care of a new pet, and it wasn’t my kids. And I never wanted to be a zookeeper.

My husband and I still try to institute chores when it comes to Toby, but my son gets squeamish about mixing in the “wet food”, i.e. the canned food Toby likes. And it’s all we can do to get our daughter fed and dressed and out the door for school in the morning, much less make sure she feeds the dog.

As they got older, I happily noticed that they helped out more with caring for Toby without our badgering. So last Christmas, I thought my son was ready for a fish tank. Fish aren’t even really animals, I reasoned. If one happens to go belly up, it’s not so distressing.

But as we came to find out, fish tanks are kind of a pain to keep clean. My son was sorely tempted to whine his way out of doing it all himself. But in addition to helping him get it up and running, my husband and I laid down some tough love. In the end, my son learned how to maintain a fish tank by himself and care for three hardy goldfish, and he is much the happier fish-owner for it.

But the fish aren’t all that satisfying as pets. He gets more satisfaction from decorating the tank than from interacting with the fish. He is singing the “new-pet” tune again, loudly and often.

Yet seeing his newfound sense of responsibility has changed my outlook a bit. I figure as long as he buys and cares for a new pet himself, I could be talked into another one. Children will only be young for a short time, and animals really do bring joy to our lives, children and adults both.

Does anyone know of a pair of chinchillas for sale?

Diann Ducharme is the author of The Outer Banks House and the recently released ebook, Chasing Eternity, and is a wife, mother of three children and owner of one border collie. You can find her at http://www.diannducharme.com, where she blogs about the writing life.
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