How should children learn to take some responsibility for family pets? New research from a team led by the University of St. Andrews's Janine Muldoon investigates children’s perspectives of the division of labor in relation to their pets.
The exploratory study involved focus groups with children aged seven, nine, 11, and 13. The researchers planned equal numbers of boys and girls, but constraints meant that 30 girls and only 23 boys took part.
The main "caring" activity that children took part in with their pet was playing with it. Some of the children were very honest in admitting they did not otherwise take care of the animal. For example, one 13-year-old girl, Isla*, said, “She (mum) cleaned it and I just played with it.”
"I’d probably say the person who it belongs to, because it’s their responsibility and mums because that’s what they normally do."
The older children suggested they played in a way that included what the animal wanted, compared to when they were younger when they treated it more like a toy. The children were vague, however, on other aspects of animal care, even when saying they had responsibility for it.
While playing with animals is fun, it does not give a full picture of what it is like to look after a pet, or help children develop their abilities. “While most parents understandably want to safeguard their children and their animals," the researchers write, "refusal to let children take responsibility where they want to (with support) ultimately sends the message that they are not competent enough.”
Both boys and girls agreed that the owner of the pet should be the one to look after it. However, when it came to who actually looks after the pet, while girls tended to pick mom, dad, or children, boys were more likely to say children and less likely to say dad. Girls were more likely to suggest that there should be some kind of shared responsibility within the family. Gendered role expectations are apparent in the answers. For example, when asked who should care for pets, one boy, Ewan* (age 13), said: “I’d probably say the person who it belongs to, because it’s their responsibility and mums because that’s what they normally do.”
Many children said they were not allowed to perform some aspects of pet care, either because they were not able to or because of issues to do with the animal, such as it behaving in a way they would find difficult to manage. They also wanted to avoid some responsibilities, especially the “disgusting” jobs. Boys in particular did not want to do the job of cleaning up.
Rural children seemed to have more responsibility for looking after their animals than children who did not live in a rural area.
The results show a tension between some children not taking enough responsibility for pet care, and others who reported that their relationship was less positive if they were involved. The challenge is to teach children how to care for animals—other than playing with them—in a way that is age-appropriate.
“Our findings are strongly suggestive of a role for educators in developing a model of care that specifies the sequence of activities children can be encouraged to engage in to move towards more comprehensive care," the researchers write. "Guidance for parents on how to manage the process of allowing children more and more responsibility may be particularly useful. A fine balance needs to be struck between educating children on the full gamut of caring for a pet, while supporting them so they feel responsibility is, and should be, shared and not solely in their hands.”
*These names have been changed.