Kids and Pets: How Owning a Pet Builds Character

kids and pets

It’s been nearly 2 months now since we made the leap to dog ownership, and what a fun 2 months it’s been! We waited a long time before taking the plunge, and now that we’re here, I have two things to say: I’m so glad we got a dog … and I’m so glad we waited.

We talk a lot on The Risky Kids about how important it is to us that we raise kids who are responsible and confident in their skills. And one really good way to give kids more responsibility and confidence is to put them in charge of something. When that something just happens to be a real, living thing … well, you can imagine the effect is magnified.

We’ve had “pets” before, of the fish variety, and I always used their sad stories to illustrate for the kids why I thought they weren’t ready for a dog or cat. You probably know the scenario: kid begs for pet, parents want minimal upkeep, fish is chosen as compromise, fish is exciting for 2.5 days, no one gives a crap about the fish anymore, fish dies. That, my friends, is the fish circle of life right there. The kids swore fish were different, they would be better about a real pet. You know, one they could actually pet? I was very, very skeptical.

They’ve been trying to wear me down on the puppy front for years, and finally all the pieces were in place. The house we moved in to has an invisible fence the previous owners installed and left behind. We knew we had our big trip to Spain coming up for nearly 2 years, and I told them we wouldn’t take on the responsibility of a dog and have to worry about finding someone to watch it for a month. Well, now the trip is behind us. Finally, I needed the kids to be fairly self-sufficient themselves.  I wanted them to be able to walk our neighborhood on their own, get their own food, and clean up their own messes before I signed up to walk, feed, and clean up another living being. Lo and behold, we got back from Spain and the kids were quick to point out that all my previous requirements had been met. What were we waiting for? And so with everything in place, we began looking for a dog that would be a good fit for our family. Soon after, we found Gus.

What do you know? The dog > fish theory my kids presented was actually right. I have been, quite frankly, blown away by Elena and Eli’s ability to care for an animal properly. Two months in, and here are just a few key areas of character I’ve seen the kids grow in:

Thinking of others

Having a dog puts certain constraints on what you can do and how long you can be gone. The kids have learned that we can’t leave the house all day and not make arrangements for the puppy. We can’t simply leave him in the crate for 10 hours and forget about him.

Taking care of daily responsibilities

There are some things that you always have to do, whether you feel like it or not. The puppy needs fed twice a day. He needs his water bowl filled. He needs played with and exercised daily. He needs to go outside to pee and poop many times a day. All these things need to be done, no matter the weather, your mood, the status of your social life, or the amount of homework you brought home.

The importance of putting things where they belong

Puppies are like toddlers – with an uncanny ability to sense what they shouldn’t have and then seek and destroy it. While we’ve been lucky that Gus hasn’t ruined anything of extreme importance (though he has great taste in socks – Smartwool, to be exact), the kids have learned that toys, socks, shoes, books, and electronic devices need to be put up and out of reach if they want to ensure their safety.

The consequences of shirking your duties

We had one very bad night where Elena was in charge of the puppy by herself. She got sucked into her iPod and neglected to watch Gus like she should. The result? He pooped and peed multiple times in the house. Which leads me to …

Taking care of unpleasant tasks

We could’ve have easily scolded her and then cleaned up ourselves. It would’ve been faster and less filled with tween dramatics. But there’s a valuable lesson to be had here. Sometimes life hands you nasty stuff you don’t want to deal with, but you have to. Dogs poop, and it needs to be scooped. Just like one day you’ll have to clean someone else’s pee off a toilet, or change a dirty diaper, or wash someone else’s dishes.

The reward of a job well done

This is where taking care of a dog really shines. Because the kids have invested the time and effort into feeding, walking, and playing with Gus, he rewards them in the best of all ways: with lots of love, snuggles and puppy kisses. Of course, I’ve been doing that their entire lives, but when it comes from a dog? So much better.

Not only are these skills important to learn in order to take care of a pet, they’re absolutely necessary for living a happy, productive, and well-adjusted life! Teach them now, and your kids’ siblings, teachers, friends, future roommates, bosses and spouses will thank you later.

Now, I would never suggest you get a pet just to teach your kids responsibility or to build their confidence. Adding a pet to your family is a huge, long-term commitment, and it certainly isn’t for everyone. But if you’ve been thinking about it, and you’re ready on all fronts except for wondering if the kids will benefit? Then by all means, take the leap!

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The Unscheduled Summer: Putting the Break Back in Summer

Unscheduled summer

Well hello there {dusts cobwebs off keyboard}! It’s been awhile!

I had absolutely no intention of taking a break from blogging, but as I turned the calendar to August and the last days of summer vacation stared me in the face, I found the last place I wanted to be was in front of a glowing computer screen. It was both difficult and easy at the same time.

You see, I love a good routine. I love feeling productive. I love making lists (that are realistically too long to accomplish) and grand plans (that even with the best of intentions) are doomed to be derailed. And so there I was, fresh off the plane after being gone for a month, making detailed editorial calendars for this blog, dreaming up grand posts that would require hours of writing and editing, and trying to catch up on a month’s worth of emails. It sounded so doable in my head and on paper! But then I would think about sitting down at the computer and my chest would feel tight and all of the inspiration would drain out of me. It was just one more thing to do, in a summer that – while it was fun and amazing traveling the world – was begging me to stop and slow down.

In eight years of blogging, both here and on my personal blog, I’ve never just taken an unannounced break and walked away. I stressed about it a lot in the beginning and wondered if it was an okay thing to do. And then, once I’d spent a few days away, it was easy. I didn’t fill the time with anything else remotely productive. I just took each day as it came and enjoyed whatever came out of it.

Summer Reading Kids

The same could be said of my kids. They, too, took a break this summer. Normally my love of lists and grand plans spills over into our summer as well. We can’t be too idle! And so I sign them up for a few camps. I make plans for a few road trips and visits to local museums. We sign up for two or three reading programs. I set up detailed rules for screen use.

After spending the first half of the summer away, I decided the rest of the summer would be unscheduled. No camps, no reading lists, no bridge activities, no trips, and no screen time rules. I’ll be the first to admit it wasn’t always pretty. We spent many a morning still in our pajamas with unbrushed teeth and hair at 11 a.m. The pile of books the school sent home with Eli still sits by the fireplace, unread. The house was messy, we were lazy, and we spent more than enough time watching dumb TV or playing mindless games on the iPad.

But …

The kids also played a lot. Lazy mornings more often than not turned into creative, fun-filled afternoons with friends. Not having plans or anywhere to be meant we were free to go to the pool when we wanted, play when we wanted, be bored when we wanted, and to be creative when we wanted.

In short, an unscheduled summer gave us the freedom to dream, relax and recharge. Isn’t that what a break is all about?

lazy summers

Now, I’m not saying each and every summer from here on out should operate like this one. We spent 4 weeks of one summer completely unscheduled. Any more time than that would’ve gone from wonderful to disastrous. The sibling squabbling had picked up and the bad kind of boredom was setting in. By the time school started last week we were itching for a regular routine.

But what if we took a few days or a week out of our school breaks or vacations and allow them to be exactly that: breaks. I think so often we look at blank days or weekends with a sense of guilt or shame. We should be doing something. We confuse doing nothing with wasted time. True – doing nothing does start out as an empty slot of time. But when we give the empty space time to fill on its own, we allow ourselves to be filled with things that bring us joy, inspiration, and fun. We walk away full, not depleted.

Beyond this gift, I also see the valuable lesson that unscheduled time gives ourselves and our kids. We are living in a time when we could fill every second of every day with some kind of activity or connection. We are slowly but surely losing the ability to cope with down time. We don’t know what to do when we’re not doing something! I want my kids to grow up knowing the value of free time. More importantly, I want them to make it a routine part of their lives. In order to teach that lesson, like so many important life lessons, I realize I have to model it in my own life.

And so I took a break myself. I’m relaxed and recharged and ready to dive back into The Risky Kids again.

Do you build downtime into your days, weekends or vacations? If so, what benefits have you seen? And if not, what holds you back from doing so?

 

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Free-Range Parenting From the Helicopter

Please join me in welcoming my friend Liz, of Eternal Lizdom, to The Risky Kids today! Liz is a mom of 2 and a fellow blogger. Earlier this year I posed the question: what do you do when you and your spouse disagree on kids’ activities? It’s a question I get asked a lot, and while Mike and I have the same basic philosophy when it comes to our parenting style and tolerance for independent play, I know many of you struggle with this. Liz has some experience on the topic, and I think you’ll find her perspective helpful and enlightening! 

I’m not usually one to adhere to labels when it comes to parenting. But in our household, we do have 2 different styles when it comes to the independent play and living of our kids.

I’m something of a “free-range parent.” I encourage my kids to be independent and not constantly under my rules and supervision. My husband is more of a “helicopter parent.” He prefers to always know where the kids are, be able to see them, and have direct influence over their decisions. In some ways, this could cause a lot of conflict in a family. These can be very different styles.

When we go to the park, I’m more likely to bring a book and sit on a bench and enjoy the sunshine while the kids run off and play. My husband is more likely to stand on the playground and patrol the borders, keeping an eye on the kids as they play.

At the grocery store, I will send my 9-year-old to pick up something I forgot a few aisles or sections back. My husband will circle back and take everyone along to pick up the forgotten item – wanting to keep an eye on everyone and also wanting to make sure that the correct item is chosen.

When playing outside, I let the kids have the run of the street with their friends. My husband prefers that they play in one set location so that he can check on them at any time.

The interesting thing is … we don’t really fight about it. I can easily see where we would. These can be very different styles, especially when we are all out together. But I think we both see the value in our differences. So I bite my tongue sometimes when he insists on doing things that I see as controlling small behaviors. And he sometimes has to bite his tongue when he thinks I’m letting them have too much freedom.

When it comes to “biting my tongue,” the thing I do to help with that is to stop and think about my kids in the future. I think about how they will describe their childhood and their memories. And my hope is that they will see our different styles in a positive way – and when I try to project to the future and look back, I can see how dad’s style has a lot of benefits for them in the long run (even if I find it frustrating right now).

He’s driven by wanting them to learn how to make the best choice now. He wants them to benefit from his life experience, to accept his knowledge and adult perspective. He wants to protect them from making mistakes and getting hurt. I want them to learn by making mistakes and getting hurt. Not that I want my children to hurt – it’s horrible to watch your child suffer in any way. But I also know that my kids learn when they are in a more difficult situation and have to think it through. My husband wants to be the main source of knowledge and wisdom and answer for our kids. I want to be a place they can safely come and talk to, someone who can offer guidance and other perspectives but the decision is still left to them.

The bottom line is that our kids benefit from both of our styles. They learn from dad that sometimes there is a need for caution, there is a reason to be careful with how we proceed. From mom, they learn about responsibility and to use their instincts and sense of caution to make their choices.

And in the end, all of our choices are made because we love our children. As long as that is the message that comes through to them, I think we’re doing just fine.

(Ironically, as I finish writing this, my husband is taking a big step by allowing our 9-year-old to stay home alone while he runs to the grocery store. I’m proud of him!)

Also – a book that really has helped me develop into this more-allowing-of-freedom parent is “Protecting the Gift” by Gavin DeBecker. I know a lot about what there is to fear in the world and this book helped me to realize that my instincts are very trustworthy. I highly recommend it to all parents.

Thank you so much for sharing with us, Liz! It sounds like your kids have the best of both worlds! Have any of you ever experienced the same thing – one of you is more “free-range” than the other parent? What’s your best advice for parenting with respect for your partner’s differences and concerns?

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Good Question: What’s Your “Sick Leave” Policy for Kids?

Sick kids

This month’s Good Question comes from a friend who wondered what’s the appropriate way to handle sick kids and social and/or school situations. I realize this is probably odd timing for this particular topic. But the true spirit of a Good Question, it had me wondering, “What does everyone else do?” So even though I realize cold and flu season is (mostly) behind us, and school is winding down for the year, kids still get sick and we still have to deal with the dilemmas that surround illness all year long.

Her question specifically delves into the grey area surrounding illness. We’re not talking about the obvious: fever, vomiting, raging pink eye. I think we can all agree that when our kids are obviously ill and contagious, it’s in everyone’s best interest to hunker down. She referenced a family situation in which one set of parents were very concerned about illness of any kind, while another family was more lax. If there was an upcoming family gathering at Grandma’s, and any of the cousins had been sick recently or had runny noses, the one family wanted to err on the side of caution. Either Grandma had to call it off, or they weren’t coming if the recovering kids were going to be there. It was beginning to cause strife in the family. Was one party over-reacting to potential germs? Or was the other party under-reacting, and selfishly putting other kids at risk for a nasty bug? And whose side was poor Grandma supposed to be on?!

I haven’t dealt with this myself personally, but I can understand the dilemma it poses for families. Beyond social situations, I can see how parents who work full-time must wrestle with where the line is. Are the kids sick enough that they shouldn’t be in school, causing a parent to miss work? Or is it okay for kids to go to school, say, at 75% of their functioning level, or with a runny nose from a cold that just won’t go away?

This might not seem like a normal topic of conversation for The Risky Kids, but I think it touches on a subject that has everything to do with The Risky Kids. Are we living in a society that believes we have (near) complete control over the health and safety of our kids? That if we just do everything right, if we are vigilant enough, not only are we superior parents, but we can protect our children from just about any harm or discomfort?

As you can imagine, I lean to the side of being under-cautious. If my kids are obviously sick, we’re not going to school or to Grandma’s house. But if they’re fever-free, not puking, and not oozing suspect bodily fluids … and they’re up to going to school or being around other kids, I’m okay with it. And by saying I’m okay with it (and I think this is key here if you’re going to make this judgement call), that means I’m okay with you doing the same thing with your kids. Of course we take the polite and responsible precautions: we wash hands a lot, blow our noses, and keep our food and drinks to ourselves. And if for some reason we’re going to be around kids who are in a special situation, such as being immuno-compromised, then we absolutely stay away.

What do you say? Have you ever been on either end of this situation? I’d love to hear from both camps. As with most Good Questions, I’m sure there are some view points and situations I’m just not aware of. And if you have a Good Question you’d like to ask, let me know in the comments or on our Facebook page!

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