What age should children be when you get your first family pet? There’s a big debate in my house right now about a hamster. What do you think?
Adding a Family Member
Some people, of course, have dogs or cats or, sure, hamsters, before they have kids, and my sense is that people who really want pets as adults get them on their own.
Then there’s the other category of people who feel the draw or pressure or impulse to bring a pet into their home because of their children, either because the kids really want it or because they think it would be good for the kids to have exposure to and/or responsibility for another living thing. My gut answer, though, truly, is not to get a pet with your children in mind at all.
I realize that this question is complicated and multi-faceted, and also that one’s family of origin has a tremendous amount of influence on parents’ expectations of what pet ownership ought to look like. If you grew up with pets, getting one as an adult, and as a parent, seems natural and rational and a normal part of the functioning of a household. If you didn’t grow up with pets, you’re probably more likely to consider pet ownership like soccer or sewing classes — something about which you would follow your child’s lead.
If you or the other adults in your house feel like your collective lives would be enriched by an animal, then you should get one. If your children enjoy it, that’s great. But if they don’t, or they don’t step up to help with feeding or cleaning, you won’t be left with resentment about taking care of something you didn’t want in the first place.
Hamsters have a lifespan of about two years, so you’re not making a long-term investment. The flip side of that, of course, is that a mere two years from now, you may be having a difficult conversation about death with a child of, well, any age. Hamsters are also nocturnal, which means potentially hearing them at night, which, to me, is a drawback for hamster owners of any age. I’ve heard that they’re also likely to escape and, honestly, not that loveable, which makes the prospect seem unattractive.
You want a number, though, so here goes: To have your child grow up used to animals as a way of life, get one before they’re two. To get an animal that you want your child to love and care for, and perhaps feel ownership over, aim for age four or five. And if you want your children to help take responsibility for the well-being of the animal, you’re looking at more like age eight to 10.
Most importantly, though, to get an animal that you, as the parent, want, it doesn’t matter the age of your child, as long as your child isn’t afraid of or allergic to the pet you’re bringing home.
Full disclosure: I’ve never been much of a pet person, having experienced debilitating allergies to guinea pigs as a child, a fear of my neighbor’s dog and boredom at my family’s fish and turtle. But, as the brand new owner of a baby bearded dragon, the wonder of my children (ages eight and 10) at caring for this little thing and anticipating it growing up with them (possibly for the next decade), does seem like a worthwhile experience.
As long as you go into the process with your eyes open and your expectations managed, the right age is probably whichever one you choose.