When my middle son was in preschool, he wrote his Christmas letter to Santa asking for a guinea pig. My husband and I, thinking this was a random ask by a 4-year-old, dismissed it and instead asked Santa to focus on bringing some other things from his list. We weren’t even really sure where the idea of a guinea pig came from. No one we knew had one, and although I, myself, grew up with hamsters and guinea pigs, I couldn’t recall talking much about them. We managed to avoid true disappointment that year by letting him know that “Santa doesn’t carry live animals on his sleigh.”
The following Christmas when he was in kindergarten and writing his list, the GPig was again at the top. This time we had been hearing about his “dream of having one for a pet” over the course of the year, so it wasn’t a surprise. Although we knew this ask was no longer a whim, and he did show plenty of signs of taking on the responsibility, a pet wasn’t something we wanted to add into our already busy household with three boys and a dog.
But as Christmas drew closer that year, a guinea pig was THE only thing he wanted from his list. So much so that on Christmas Eve day as Santa’s elves were wrapping and arranging piles of gifts, a certain elf made a dash to Target to find one those little motorized pets that scoot along the floor, and somehow snagged one that was a guinea pig — and the last one! On the drive home, the elf was certainly thanking Baby Jesus for that find!
On Christmas morning, though, while slightly intrigued and amused, (and, as is his nature, appreciative of his new toy), the faux pig was noooooot quite what he envisioned. Shortly after, the motor wore out and it stopped moving. Prior to that, its tiny fast spinning wheels did, in fact, get caught in MY hair — just as the consumer news reports had warned people about.
Finally, the Christmas while in first grade, the GPig yet again made its way to the top of his list. The random ask had transitioned to a true want and desire to have his own little pet to take care of. Having just lost their grandmother a few weeks before Christmas, my husband thought that this might be the year to ask Santa to make an exception to the “no live animals” rule and deliver just that to one patient little boy and his brothers.
Since this post is supposed to focus on the benefits of the responsibility that a pet has brought to our family, I will skip lengthy details about that Christmas morning. However, I am sure you can imagine, it was filled with all the joy, excitement, and happiness that comes with Christmas morning in addition to sheer surprise and a ridiculously cute little guinea pig!
Immediately upon receiving this new pet, my son and his already inherent nurturing skills went to work, feeding him in the morning when we woke up, giving some fruit or veggies after school and serving up a handful of hay at night. He would remember to check the water and add in the correct amount of vitamin C drops into the water bottle. Cleaning the cage still takes a reminder from Mom or Dad (and a little help to maneuver) but when it comes to getting it done, he is right on task.
The biggest surprise in all of this is not just seeing my son’s dedication to his pet, which never became a forgotten gift or a chore, but also seeing the way in which his brothers have evolved in their roles, too. While all three boys immediately enjoyed the new addition to the family, the other two respectfully understood their furry friend was essentially their brother’s pet and early on were not too involved in the care and feeding.
If you have ever owned a guinea pig, or have been around them, you know that they are very social, great predictors of time/schedule and are generally very engaged with their surroundings. Soon, my oldest and youngest, who rotate being the earliest riser, were making stops by the cage in the morning to feed the little pig squeaking greetings from his cage. When their brother woke up and shuffled his way from their room one of them would call upstairs to him, “I already fed Sassy!” Soon the very kids who normally have to be reminded to do something 20 times were actively remembering on their own to check on and care for another living thing.
As a parent, this is not only rewarding from the standpoint of teaching kids to be responsible and accountable as they grow, but it also allows a small peek at the takeaways your own kids may carry with them. For example, having three boys often leads to me witnessing more arguing than using kind words with each other. Not that they don’t love one another, but when you overhear your children chat with a pet about their day, use soothing tones when it’s scared or nervous, and repeat phrases of comfort you know you have said to them, it’s a nice reminder that for all the “bad mom moments” and “do-over days” we wish we had, we are in fact raising good little humans.
Is the point of this post to convince everyone reading it to run out and grab a new pet for your kids? No. Are you a bad parent because maybe you can’t have, or absolutely do not want, a pet? Absolutely not! Pets are a big commitment and not a toy to toss aside after the newness wears off. According to the ASPCA, roughly 6.5 million companion animals enter shelters across the US every year. Kids can obviously still grow up to be kind, loving and responsible people without ever having owned a pet. I am simply saying that giving our boys the benefit of the doubt to work together as a little team to care for another living being, with little to no involvement from my husband and me, has been so nice to watch. So much so that we added a second guinea pig to the mix this past January. Since adding these furry critters to our household, we have also seen the boys take a newfound interest in our 10-year-old dog who they previously viewed mainly as a curmudgeonly furry old man roommate who sleeps all day.
I hope that as they grow into adults, they'll take these life lessons with them, including the feelings of love and pride and accomplishment and ultimately loss that come with caregiving. I hope it further shapes them into compassionate, gentle and empathetic men. I also hope they don’t ask Santa to put me into a home, but that’s for another post...
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