Yet another parent has recently appeared in the media to discuss his reasons for wanting to agree a contract with his children before allowing them to have a pet. No doubt parents up and down the country are ruefully smiling as they say through gritted teeth, 'good luck with that, we've been there, tried it, got the t-shirt!'
A contract, though, can be a great idea in principle. Children will initially agree to anything in order to achieve their desired goal. But an animal, whether it be a pony, dog, cat or guinea pig, needs time, attention and looking after, with some being more demanding than others.
Sitting to discuss the ground rules and outline a contract allows time for becoming clear about what's entailed in regularly living with a pet. Feeding, grooming, exercising and cleaning cages, water bowls or litter trays all require consistent input, yet it's the case that the parent becomes the fall back guy, relied upon to take up the slack when fun, friends and other interests become too distracting.
A contract requires both parties to sit down together to discuss and negotiate the areas of responsibility, followed by signatures once it's been agreed. Doing this can be a valuable way of focusing the child's mind on what's expected of him/her, with any penalties that may be incurred. Displaying the contract prominently can then provide an ongoing reminder, a point of reference should standards start to slip.
Having responsibilities, caring for others and showing respect are important for children to learn at an early age. I often hear of teachers who express their disappointment at parents who are too busy or distracted to teach children about consideration, selflessness and commitment. They complain that oftentimes parents leave it to their children's teachers to do their job for them.
So having children look after a pet on a regular basis, even when it's raining, is an unpleasant task or is time-consuming is a crucial lesson for life. A contract can provide a clear reminder of what was agreed during the initial enthusiasm and promises made pre-pet.
And a pet can add significantly to a child's life. There are many accounts of children whose mental and physical development was noticeably enhanced after a pet came into their lives. The benefits can be life changing.
Dogs especially, don't judge and are often persistent in their demands, wanting stroking and attention, giving unconditional love. They constant presence enables them to become a child's loyal, inseparable companion, sometimes becoming their one true friend in life. This can be especially important if the child feels lonely, different, shy or awkward.
Some children will tell their pet everything, so that it becomes their trusted confidante. They may feel comfortable about sharing their secrets, their distress at a family divorce or death, open up about their upset over a situation at home, problems at school and find it easy to disclose their inner fears, anxieties and concerns.
It may be that a pet becomes a child's first experience of death and loss. Going through the death of a much-loved pet and learning to deal with it by asking questions and perhaps having a burial service or ritual can be an important lesson. They learn about grief and its associated emotions..
However, if there's any doubt about a child's ability to sustain interest in years of commitment to an animal it's important to reconsider carefully in advance. Or it may be that a very young child is unable to fully understand how to treat an animal properly, would be rough with it or irritated at having to look after it and would take his/her frustrations out on it. Animals have very few ways of protecting themselves; their options tend to be biting, snarling and scratching which then result in the pet being punished.
Education is important and it might be useful, prior to pursuing the pet route, to volunteer at an animal shelter, borrow someone else's pet to walk and look after or even sponsor something exotic at the nearest zoo and then visit regularly. There are even virtual pets that demand attention and regularly remind their owner of their presence. A child may soon realise that they're not that interested in having a pet longterm. One of these options might be a more viable alternative, at least at first.