Something almost magical happens when a child has an animal in their lives to take care of. You see the deepest parts of their character when they are entrusted with something that is completely at their mercy. As parents, we always hope that gentleness and caring will flow naturally from our children to the animals in their lives, but often we get a unique set of teachable moments to build these qualities into our kids.
My own pet experiences began with a childhood of fish, birds, and a few dogs. I remember some of my own lessons quite distinctly, such as not adding seashells that you collected at the beach to your freshwater tank at home…so sorry, Guppies! I was fiercely proud of being the one who fed our family dog every day before school. But the childhood lesson that has shaped my adult pet ownership the most is the heartbreak of knowing animal lifespans are generally much shorter than our own.
As a parent, I have often debated if the harshness of this lesson outweighed the benefits of having a pet. When our family dogs passed out of our lives before our children were old enough to remember them, I felt certain we did not need to include pets in our family again. But then my kids taught me a lesson in looking past pain to the beauty of a relationship that has benefits that definitely outweigh the hurt.
I think the fact that most kids can relate to begging for a pet shows that there is a feature in our design that calls out for connection with animals. Our kids begged over and over again for pets, even after an early and brief experience with a Grow-a-Frog, but I was still not ready. Eventually, we allowed them to take on pet sitting jobs. Easy fix, right? All the important lessons on responsibility, gentleness, and kindness, with none of the impending doom.
But pet sitting did not scratch the itch for my kids. They still wanted a creature to connect to full time. Military associated life can make pet ownership very complicated. You never know when a change in policy or assignment might lead to difficult decisions about your pet. For once, this complication became a blessing for my children when policy dictated that the family of a parakeet they pet sat often would have to return to the States. Birds, it turns out, do not fly well when airplanes are involved, so our friends entrusted their feathered friend to us full time.
Within a few months of having a bird, we added a second bird to keep him company. My second oldest is one of the gentlest people I know, and she patiently gained the trust of our birds. The child who never stops moving at other times would sit quietly for long stretches of time just resting a treat on her open hand. After months of this, the birds came to trust her so much that if she sits near their cage, they come over to see if she has anything for them! During this process, the birds did not trust the rest of us like they did her. Siblings watched and learned to be still and quiet. Birds and kids both grew more brave, and now we can all reach a treat into the cage and they will come land on our hands and enjoy a snack!
And yet, there is still that black cloud looming. We have recently seen a great many of our friends have to say goodbye to their animal friends, and our hearts break a little bit with each of them! But still my kids are desperately wanting a dog. We will not be getting one while we live overseas, but it is one of the things they look forward to most about our eventual return to the States. We have had some great discussions lately about quality of life for pets and eventually having to let them go. And while at first I thought I was the one teaching the lessons, it turns out my kids have reminded me of one of the best reasons to love an animal with a short lifespan: It teaches us to value someone not because of what they can do, but because they are there. Love does not demand productivity. Love happens when we simply abide with another.