Surprise, surprise: When I talk, my kids don’t always listen. Since my oldest just turned 5 this past November, it’s hard to know exactly how much of my long-winded lectures on life they absorb. At this juncture, however, I tend to believe that my Beagle-Basset mix demonstrates a higher level of attentiveness when I scold him for rooting through the garbage.
Luckily, that’s where family pets can prove to be far more than fun-loving bundles of fur who romp with the kiddos in the backyard or sleep at the foot of their beds. From our remaining Goldfish to our oldest surviving dog (Bridget, the Chihuahua), each of the animals in our home has taught my children lessons that I couldn’t possibly impart with such efficacy. For starters, there are the biggies. Think issues surrounding life, loss, and death.
Maria, my 5-year-old, was barely 2 when we had to euthanize Buster, our Cairn Terrier, who was suffering from severe neurological deterioration. Buster had been there when we brought Maria home from the hospital, and several of her earliest pictures feature her shaggy-haired guardian. Though she was just a toddler when we put him to sleep, she saw both my husband and myself upset. She witnessed us say our goodbyes before I brought him to the vet’s office, and she watched us comforting each other as we mourned him. It was an extremely difficult time for us, but it also gave us the opportunity to show Maria the value of both an animal’s life and the process of remembering and celebrating it.
Once again, I didn’t initially know how much of an impact this particular event had on our then incredibly young daughter. But this past fall, when Maria was asked to bring in an item for show-and-tell at her preschool, she selected the framed picture she keeps on the dresser in her bedroom that displays Buster in his Halloween costume. Of all her myriad treasures, she numbers this keepsake as one of her most prized.
Of course, being a parent and a pet guardian is not all about nostalgia and lessons that leave a mother’s mascara running. For example, I have learned to impart the importance of personal responsibility using several different tools–rabbit poop not being among the least of them. Before you raise your eyebrows too high, dear readers, allow me to explain. Our bunny Waffles sits in our basement atop a dresser filled with Barbies and My Little Ponies.
One of Maria’s jobs is to help my husband, Carl, clean the rabbit cage on a weekly basis. If either of them lapses in their duties, multiple results stem from their negligence. Perhaps most importantly, Waffles is one unhappy bunny and expresses his dissatisfaction with an unkempt home by kicking poo balls out of his cage. Inevitably, some of these lovely little droppings drop onto unsuspecting plastic dolls and horses–a sad scenario that forces Maria to clean and disinfect the maligned toys (under Daddy’s close supervision, of course). The overall outcome of this cause-and-effect experience forces my daughter to consider the role a pet guardian plays in an animal’s welfare, the significance of personal accountability, and the best methods of shampooing Barbie hair.
From dealing with death to wiping up rabbit doo doo, my children have all gained exposure to real-life subjects and situations that would be challenging for me to otherwise wrap into nice, neat little life lessons. Does having a dog who busts into garbage cans and a rabbit who requires regular manicures add to the general day-to-day stress of being a mommy? Sometimes. Does sharing a home with a wide array of furred, feathered, and finned family members increase the opportunities my little guys (and gal) have to learn about everything from pet care to compassion? Always.
–Katie Marsico has written for Tails since 1999. In addition to contributing feature stories to the magazine, she now writes a weekly blog post for Tattle Tails, giving us a glimpse into her often funny and always chaotic life as mother, pet guardian, and writer.
Baby Maria and her Guard Dog, Buster