Thinking of surprising your little one with a brand new puppy under the tree? It turns out that just might be the gift that keeps on giving.
The benefits of owning a pet are plenty. And, giving your child something to take care of, like a pet or even a houseplant, helps them learn responsibility. Just make sure to include them in the work, as well as the fun.
This is one reason that most Montessori classrooms include at least one class pet. Many include a pet from each class of vertebrates (fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals) as well as an invertebrate like a class tarantula or hermit crabs.
Of course, teaching responsibility should not be the sole reason for bringing home a family pet. It’s a big decision that should only be made if you can offer the love and attention an animal requires. If you’re thinking it over though, know that there are many benefits to your child, beyond the joy on their face when they see their new companion.
What are the benefits of owning a pet?
One reason Montessori teachers include so many animals in the classroom is to allow children to see science up close. There is no better way to learn about different lifeforms than by observing them, and children in Montessori classrooms do just that. Sitting and observing a class animal, perhaps drawing or writing about what they see, is a common choice for Montessori kids.
The benefits of including animals in your environment, at school or at home, go far beyond learning about science though. In Montessori classrooms, children are involved in every part of animal care. They gain responsibility and a strong sense of pride through taking care of another living being. They learn firsthand that caring for a living creature takes work, but also brings considerable joy.
Children are so often the ones being cared for, having a pet is a great opportunity for them to learn to care for someone else.
How can you set child responsibilities at home?
Most children are eager to help care for pets if you show them how. Of course they’ll want to play with their new companion, but they can do so much more to contribute to its wellbeing.
Try involving your child in the process of choosing and preparing for his new pet. You don’t have to let him choose anything he wants, but you might offer two or three options that you’d be comfortable with. Then help him research what the pet will need to thrive and set up the habitat together. He’ll be learning responsibility before the pet even enters your house.
Even a very small child can help feed animals. If your little one is too young to give a reasonable portion of food, set aside the right amount or get a scoop that’s just the right size and let them feed the fish or fill the dog bowl.
In Montessori classrooms, children as young as three also enjoy preparing fresh produce, like apples or carrots, to give to class pets. They scrub the produce, peel it if necessary, and carefully chop it before watching with delight as the beloved animal enjoys the fruits of their labor.
This is of course the most fun and easiest part of having a pet. Through playing with animals, children learn to be gentle, and it helps them have empathy for animals they encounter in the wild. You can also talk about how animals need to move their bodies to be healthy, just like people.
While certain parts of cleaning animal habitats should be kept for older children or adults, children as young as three can help scrub a pet’s food or water bowl. While this task may seem onerous to an adult, children often delight in the chance to help.
What if you’re just not an animal person?
Confession: While I’ve seen the benefits of pets in the classroom countless times, I’m not really a pet person. I love animals, but enjoy watching them in the wild more than having them in my home. Maybe it’s because I’m allergic to many animals, maybe it’s because I hate the thought of having more cleaning added to the list.
Even if you’re not a pet person though, there are still things you can do to offer your child the benefits.
Keep it simple
While many think of a dog or cat as the classic pet for a child, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. If you’re looking for a pet that requires less work and expense, a fish or guinea pig might be a good option. They generally require substantially less effort, and still provide your child the joy of taking care of a living creature.
Try a short term pet
If you’re not ready to have a lifelong companion join your family, try butterflies! Through sites like this , you can order caterpillars, feed them and watch them form a chrysalis and transform into a butterfly. This allows your child the experience of caring for something, with a commitment of only a few weeks.
Similarly, you could have pet tadpoles and release them when they turn into frogs (just make sure, they’re a local species). Or, offer to pet-sit for a friend or neighbor and bring your child along.
Volunteer at an animal shelter
If you don’t have the space or inclination for pets in your home, try taking your child to volunteer at an animal shelter. They’ll experience taking care of animals and do a whole lot of good too.
Plant the seed
Animals are not the only thing that can teach children responsibility. Taking care of plants has huge benefits as well. You might try getting your child their own plant to keep in their room and take care of, or involve them in planting and caring for a garden.
However you choose to do it, giving your child the chance to care for something can be a really fun and rewarding way to teach responsibility.
A version of this post was published November 29, 2017. It has been updated.