Our family has owned many animals over the past 30 years. Some were the average American pets, like gold fish and dogs. Others were in the farm category, such as chickens, goats, and rabbits. Our children learned many things from this, as expected, but not always what we thought they would learn. Most of what they learned was dependent on a balance of our hands-on parental involvement without diminishing their own long term commitment and responsibility to the process.

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A common concern about getting an animal for a child is “will they take care of it?” I suggest that this is no more of a question than if there is general parental guidance and leadership in all aspects of the child’s life. The more opportunity there is to spend time together, like working with animals, the more chance there is for a healthy parent-child relationship to grow. Parents are not there to cram things down their throats, but to show the child what life has to offer, warn them of limits, and suggest options for dealing with it. This takes time.

However, getting an animal for a child is not the only route. Another starting point might be getting animals for a parent, older siblings, or the whole family. Learning about the animals then becomes a natural extension of family life. Like with many things, closely observing the joys and problems can be a great stimulus for interest, as well as provide foundational knowledge when the child is ready for more complete ownership.

Taking care of animals

So, here are some of the things my children have learned from having animals around, and sometimes owning animals themselves:

  • Cute doesn’t equal smart – I will never forget the day two of my girls finally got their long awaited, cute, fluffy rabbits. They were full of anticipation, eyes full of dreams. Until they tried to hold the rabbits or just sit with them on the grass. The realization in their faces that rabbits are pretty stupid was both comical and bittersweet. They still had fun with their bunnies after that, like learning to guard against gouging scratches, but they learned that beauty truly is only skin deep.
  • Some creatures are mean -You can say that the roosters or goat bucks are just acting on instinct, but the fact is that the children were posing no threat. Still, the children had to learn to be on their guard against an unprovoked attack, understanding that the aggressiveness of another creature had to be recognized without rose colored glasses if one wanted to exit the pen unscathed.
  • Real life often smells – When you really have to take care of living beings, it involves cleaning up less than pleasant byproducts. You do it because someone has to and it will cause problems if you don’t. If you put it off, it only gets worse, but, also, you can get used to it if you have a good attitude.
  • Someone has to pay for things – There are unavoidable economics to every part of life. We never made our children pay for animal upkeep, but they still saw how we made decisions about expenditures. We discussed with them why we tried to make animal shelters less expensively; how we judged when it was not worth it to pay for veterinary help; that the animal food had to come from someplace; and it’s one thing to have eggs available, but quite another to find someone that wants to buy them.
  • Where meat comes from – We butchered rabbits, goats, chickens, wild game, and cleaned fish. Well, I didn’t. Their father taught them. We all have our parts to play.

Taking care of animals

  • Anatomy and physiology – Don’t get me wrong, our children loved the live animals. They interacted with them on a daily basis. However, they knew from the outset that some of the animals were for eating. It was approached matter-of-factly. Some of the children didn’t enjoy it as much as others, but once one of them became fascinated by some feature of the lungs or eyeballs, all of them learned something. They experimented with things like how the ligaments are attached to chicken feet. They sketched many of their findings.
  • Where there is life there is death – Even if there is not butchering involved, animals die. They get sick or injured or killed by predators. We had one bunch of kittens born with all their intestines tangled in a mass. There was nothing that the vet could do. Some chicks or goat kids just didn’t thrive. Neighbors’ dogs sometimes massacred our rabbits. Too many times, children are shielded from the reality of death in ways that hamper their understanding of life.

Taking care of animals

  • Life isn’t fair – Animal mothers didn’t always accept their offspring. Sometimes there was nothing we could do to help. That made the babies that did survive more precious. Animals born with defects needed special attention to survive, but this sometimes resulted in more of a bond with that animal. Both a lame chick (from an accident) and a blind rabbit (from birth) brought unique experiences to our household.
  • The art of story telling – Children will really work on communication to tell people about a personal experience with an animal, whether it be the young goats that got accidentally poisoned or the way they fed all the chickens cucumbers through the fence. It stimulates the imagination.
  • How to learn what you want or need to know – To rephrase an old cliche, necessity is the mother learning. The skills of observation, coupled with finding the right resources, bring life to the gathering of knowledge. The children see that learning is practical and possible on their own.
  • Problem solving – Whether it be limitation of money, animal behavior, or complications of the weather, there is usually something that needs to be done. The children learn to work with what is available and invent solutions that will at least work for now.
  • Where babies come from and how much care they need – It is hard to keep animals from reproducing. And they are not private about it. Children will want to know what is going on. Then, forget those battery operated babies that they sometimes send home from school. Give a child baby goats that need to be bottle fed several times a day and night, and kept warm at night. Or let them watch how a mother hen hovers over her chicks, protecting them even from the other chickens. Or how much time a mama kitty spends nursing and cleaning her kittens.

Taking care of animals

  • There are cycles and seasons beyond our control – You have to wait for hens to grow mature enough to lay eggs. Goats don’t give milk until they’ve had a baby. Baby rabbits are unattractive and bald when born. Growing up happens, but it can’t be rushed.
  • How to appreciate the normal things of life – There is something to be in awe about without having to travel to foreign countries or dealing with catastrophe. Try watching a chick hatch or even the physics of a fish swim and breath underwater without some fascination. There is also just the happiness of the affection or recognition of many animals.

Children have the opportunity to learn to be responsible when they have animals to take care of and interact with, but that is just the tip of the ice berg of possibilities.

Taking care of animals