A couple of months ago, a family friend of ours returned from a nearby town with a new-to-him fish tank, and a few buckets of fish he wanted to re-home. I had responded to his online ad for new waters for the fish because I knew that my oldest son was interested in adding to his tank, but didn’t have much to spend. When our friend came over, our five children enthusiastically showed him around and introduced him to their pets: a dachshund that two of the girls pooled together for, and used over a year’s worth of savings to purchase; a conure, which is a type of small parrot, that one of the girls purchased; and they chattered on about their various rescues and projects, from miniature horses to mules to chickens. Although my husband does work off the property as a plumber, part-time farming has been a way of life for us for years. It is so ingrained in our daily routine, I cannot imagine life without it. Our older children have taken unhandled, wild ponies and trained them into gentle mounts, have raised rabbits, hatched chicks, ducklings, and geese, raised pigs, goats and sheep, and almost everything else in between (although they regularly remind me that we have not yet tried our hand at llamas or alpacas). Not long after dropping the fish off, our friend sent me a message asking if I had ever written about how we have built responsibility into our adopted and special needs children through the loving process of raising farm livestock, as well as pets. I hadn’t previously thought of writing on the topic but was immediately enthused.
Before jumping into how we built responsibility around raising animals, there is a special needs parenting hurdle we have to cross. For children with certain diagnoses, raising animals is not an option. Primarily, for children suffering with conduct disorder and reactive attachment disorder, depending on the behaviors exhibited and the individual child, it might not be safe. As a parent, it can be painful to come to terms with yet another loss in your adopted or special needs child. Every time us parents of children from hard places come to a fork in the road where we know we have to deviate from the norm, it hurts. It can be difficult to explain to others, who might be judgmental or fearful, why some children are unable to care for pets. Ultimately, though, as the parent, it is your job to ensure the safety of all living beings within your home. If your child has a propensity for cruelty to animals, or animal abuse, you will need to abandon this idea entirely and revisit it only on the advice of a therapist after treatment. And the rest of us parents are not off the hook! As the adults in the home, it will always be our job to check in, and make sure appropriate food and care is being provided. This does not mean doing the work for your child, but it does mean double-checking to make sure it is done, and done well.
The Benefits of Raising Animals
The key to growing responsibility is to pick the right pet. It is really important to research the animal you are interested in, and the cost of care long term. Are there heat lamps required? Special food? Complicated food? Some reptiles require live food that could be trickier to acquire—and who will feed an animal like this if you are away? Do you know someone capable of feeding live mice to a snake, or live insects to another reptile? These types of questions need to be considered and thought through by the adult BEFORE a purchase is made. Although we have had many pets of all kinds over the years, one mishap with a mismatch between child and pet is memorable. One of our adopted special needs daughters was given a small fish tank and some goldfish by her aunty. She was still quite young, and was mesmerized by the bubbles and the lights that changed colors within the tank, and extremely mesmerized by the bright orange fish! One night, my husband went in to check on her, sort of just feeling like something was off—parental intuition. There she was, curled up with a goldfish in her hand! She was almost asleep, and the fish was almost dry. My husband ran it to the sink, and gently washed away the lint and massaged it back to life. After many tries, we still were not able to communicate with her effectively that fish need to stay in water to survive. We ended up having to take the tank out of her room, and it was devastating to her. She cried and cried, and it was actually a couple of years before we were able to try again with success. It is not at all about the age of the child—it is all about their cognitive ability to understand the needs of the animal. This is where the beauty comes in. When you teach a child to provide fresh food and water, adequate space for living, appropriate exercise, and good healthcare, you are also teaching so many more things, including:
1. Empathy. When children from hard places are able to care for pets and farm animals, they learn the very basics of life. They learn to think about how another living being feels and reacts, and they should grow to predict and understand physical needs. If you as the parent are ever uncomfortable with a child’s heart reaction to a pet, or if you feel they are distant or grow less interested in caring for the pet, it is time to contact a therapist.
2. Schedules and routine. Many children with fetal alcohol syndrome or cognitive delays can really struggle with time management and memory. There are so many things you can teach and build into when caring for pets: telling the time (“Rover is walked at 9am—can you look at the clock and tell me what time it is now? How much longer until we take Rover for a walk?”), reading a calendar (“Please look at the calendar. Which day does Rover go to the vet?”), and “first things first,” or the importance of prioritizing (“I know that you want your turn on the computer, but first, check your dog’s food and water, like we do every day when you get home from school.”). The repetition and predictability that comes with a schedule for a pet provides consistency for kids that help them build a framework for their day.
3. Budgeting. For kids that are ready to start thinking about money, they can save towards purchasing a pet with allowance, pop bottle refunds, money from odd jobs, you name it. This sort of saving towards something is so valuable, and really makes the child the one in charge and invested in the project. I would recommend creating a chart to show progress when saving for a pet, as some of our special needs children really benefit from visual cues. If they see their progress, it becomes attainable. I also recommend budgeting long term—how much is food? Vet visits? Toys, shelter, accessories? This helps you as the parent know what you are in for, and will help your child see that these things are not free. The items, and money, have to come from somewhere. Some of our kids struggle with intangible concepts, but this is a way to make money and budgeting tangible, and real. Your child can learn to make a list of pet supplies needed, write down or tell you before food runs out, and, I would even suggest that older kids be expected to help pay some of the pet costs. The goal is to raise kids that can do as much on their own as possible, like adults. I know that this will look different for different children dealing with different abilities, but as much as you can, use this as a way to teach your kids about bills and costs.
4. Record keeping. Or, shall we say, language arts? Perhaps a struggling or reluctant student could be encouraged to keep a journal or notebook chronicling their journey with their pet or livestock: a record of when a lamb is born, how much weight is gained per week, and when it was weaned. Maybe they could include pictures, or have you as the parent dictate for them—whatever is at the ability level of your child is perfect. This can help reinforce what is being learned at school, or can be a part of schoolwork if you homeschool. This can become a science log, a mathematics log… Anything you can incorporate is pure gold. The bonus is, if your child really buys into the idea, it will not be a chore—it might just turn into a beloved scrapbook of their journey over the years.
The Challenges of Raising Animals, and How They Can Teach Resiliency
Although the section above was a beautiful list of life lessons, the reality is that there are also a number of challenges associated with raising farm animals and pets, and we need to talk about those, as well.
1. It doesn’t always go well. Reality is often quite different than we think it will be. My oldest adopted daughter trained a wild little pony to be a wonderful saddle horse, but she spent significant time in tears at first when the pony would bolt away from her, refusing to be caught, refuse to open her mouth for a bit, or puff up her belly so Emma couldn’t saddle her properly. I made a deal with Emma. I told her, ten minutes a day, you and me. This was on top of the list of daily care, which includes pitching hay over into the feeder and ensuring the water trough is full. This means for just ten minutes a day, which was about Emma’s attention span and ability at the time due to her frustration levels, I would set everything else aside and focus on helping Emma train her pony. Today, she has a lovely mount that she can walk, trot and lope. She can catch her by herself, and saddle her without any help. She is 8. It took ten months time, and I did pay my oldest in cheeseburgers to ride the pony late at night after Emma had gone to bed to work through some of the tricky parts, like her bolting and running off with her rider, but I see this as a total success that required a lot of work and many days that didn’t go that well. It is worth it, and will teach perseverance.
2. Sometimes, your children just won’t want to put in the work. You may find yourself fighting a kid on getting the job done—feeding, watering, whatever it is. If this becomes the norm, it can be frustrating for both parent and child. You have to determine the difference between needing to push through a rough patch, and needing to make changes based on the child’s ability or other factors. Stress, anxiety and depression reduce the capacity to perform and do tasks we normally do. You as the parent may need to step in for a while, or otherwise decide what changes need to be made.
3. The pet might be different than expected. One of my other daughters worked diligently and hard at training her mule to pull a cart. And she still is. But you would never know how much time she has put in, because he is stubborn, disrespectful, and routinely tries to take off with the cart and bolt home. Unlike the pony above, he hasn’t really come around, and we have put it way, way more time than ten minutes a day. Sometimes, pets can be aggressive, moody, or withdrawn without any error on our part. This can be so discouraging for a child, but can again be used as a life lesson in dealing with difficulty. It doesn’t matter if things aren’t going well: the basics of life still need to happen. In the case of an aggressive pet, sometimes your home might not be the right home, and it might not be safe for your child. Use this as a lesson to talk about how to make hard decisions. Make pros and cons lists, brainstorm, consider training, think outside the box—but do it all with your child, and ask for their input.
4. Worst case scenario, the pet will eventually pass away, or could be injured or become sick. While these can be heart wrenching situations, they are in fact parts of life that we deal with as humans, not just in the pet world. Acknowledge that pets are mortals and do pass away, sit with your child through the hard stuff, and hold on to all the good moments and memories. It isn’t a matter of if your child will deal with these things in their life, but a matter of when.
I am a lifelong animal lover, and advocate of raising pets or farm animals to teach responsibility and life lessons. So many of my fondest memories are centered around my kids; bottle feeding a weak lamb, correcting spraddle legs in a duckling with some tape and a tea cup, and watching my kids show their rabbits and chickens at local fairs. I don’t have much use for fillers in my life, but rather prefer to do activities with a lasting purpose. Caring for animals can provide exactly that for our adopted and special needs children.