When my daughter, then 8 years old, came home from a Saturday outing with my husband with a hamster in tow, I was not happy.
When your child wants a pet
She had been begging for a hamster for several months at this point, but I was simply not ready to add one to the family. We already had a dog, and no one helped me car for the dog except me. (To be fair, she was my dog. My first baby before I had human babies). I alone walked her, fed her and bathed her. I simply wasn’t onboard with another being who needed my attention.
Agreeing to pet ownership responsibilities
But my husband patiently assured me that I would not care for this hamster in any way. He and our oldest agreed that Gingerbread would only become a member of our household if neither mom nor dad had to care for her. Our oldest would be responsible for bathing, feeding and cleaning up after her hamster.
Teaching kids about pet ownership
This was not a role she would take lightly, I hoped. She cried when, after settling the hamster in her cage onto the dresser in her bedroom, my husband asked her to pay him back for the hamster and all the accessories he had paid for at Petsmart earlier in the day. We both knew she hoped he simply wouldn’t ask for his money back because my oldest wasn’t going to offer it up freely. But he stood there as she counted out $100- money she had collected through the years from the tooth fairy, birthdays, chores and various other means. She was deeply upset that her new friend with all her accessories had cost most of her life savings.
She cried even harder when, a few weeks later, the hamster needed more food. “Okay,” I told her. “Give me the empty bag so I know what to buy and $10 and I will get you hamster food when I’m at Target today.” Her jaw almost hit the floor. “You are going to make me pay to get Gingerbread more food?’ She clearly had not anticipated this. “That was part of the agreement. The hamster is your responsibility in every way.” After more tears, she ponied up the money, as she has monthly for her tiny friend when the hamster needed more food.
Pet ownership and death of a pet
As I was working on this article, in an ironic twist of fate, we suffered hamster tragedy. After a weekend away with her Girl Scout troop, my daughter woke up the morning after we go back to discover the hamster “forever sleeping” in her cage. After 19 months with my girl, Gingerbread the hamster had moved on to hamster heaven. My daughter was heartbroken.
We talked about what might have happened to the hamster and what she may have done wrong. We concluded, after inspecting that she had had access to adequate food and water that the hamster died of natural causes. This gave us a good opportunity to discuss death with our 9 year old, which is never easy. We discussed how everything that lives will eventually die and that sometimes there is nothing that can be done to prevent death. We assured her that she didn’t do anything to cause Gingerbread’s death.
My daughter painted a rock to serve as her hamster’s headstone next to a tree in our backyard. We buried her in a spot that my oldest can view often. I bought hamster cupcakes to eat and make us smile as we celebrated my daughter’s first pet.
The benefits of pet ownership for kids
I was against getting a furry friend. However, I’ve come to embrace this experience as a learning opportunity for my daughter. Taking financial responsibility for her hamster meant she had to do chores when she was short on cash to purchase hamster food. She also learned about loving and caring for another living being. As hard as it is to lose something you love, it is an inevitable part of pet ownership. I think all parents dread that part the most when furry friends enter their kids’ lives. This experience has been an invaluable lesson for both of us.
And, in case you are wondering, yes, my daughter is getting another hamster, with her own money. She already has the supplies on hand, making it a smaller investment this time around. Plus, she already picked out a name. She already knows that it won’t live forever. So she will love it while it’s here with us and cherish her time with this next furry friend.