Dear Family Whisperer: Don't Get a Dog 'For' Your Child

Your "mistake" isn't getting a dog. It's "giving" a dog to a 10-year-old -- and expecting him to shoulder most of the burden.
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Dear Family Whisper,

We gave our son, Devon, an adorable long-haired dachshund puppy for his tenth birthday. He wanted a dog desperately and swore he'd take care of it. As it turns out, the job has fallen to me. I can't help wondering if I made a mistake. Both Devon and his younger brother Seth -- he's 6 -- love to play with the dog, but they get bored and then walk away. They have no clue about really taking care of her. Munchkin is adorable, but for me, the last three months have been like having a toddler all over again!

-Mother with a Dog Problem

First, your "mistake" isn't getting a dog. It's "giving" a dog to a 10-year-old -- and expecting him to shoulder most of the burden. Even if Munchkin arrived on your son's birthday, she doesn't "belong" to Devon, like some Lego set. She is a living creature -- a different species to be sure, but nonetheless part of the family. Everyone should be responsible for her well-being.

I also sense that you're the Designated Doer in your family. You write that "we" gave [the dog], but wonder whether "I made a mistake." You probably shouldered more responsibilities in your household before adding a puppy to the mix. And now, the extra burden has pushed your limits.

It might seem easier at times and faster to do it yourself (whatever the "it" is at the moment). But a better response to your "dog problem" (and all chore wars) is to step back and let let them step up.

Review the decision. Before you bought/adopted Munchkin, did you talk about what it might mean to add a dog to your household and what kind of care a pet would require? Did you consider whether the neighborhood was safe for dog-walking or how everyone's daily routine might change? If not, do so now. Even if you've already answered those questions, schedule a family check-in to review how reality compares to your expectations. Ask everyone: What surprises you -- and what disappoints you -- about bringing this dog into our family? What ideas do we have to rethink?

Make a list of Munchkin's needs. Next to each one, write a description of what kind of "worker" is needed to do the job. This week's "dog feeder" measure out a cup of kibble to make sure Munchkin eats. The "dog-walker" gives her exercise. The "groomer" sets aside time to brush or comb her. Roles are chosen, not assigned, and rotated, so that adults and children alternate fun jobs with the less pleasant.

Don't underestimate your sons' capabilities. Many parents nowadays expect very little of their children. Worse, they make excuses for them. Not only are kids more capable than parents realize, they benefit from doing housework. The key is to shown them how -- and give them a chance to mess up a few times before they get it right.

When they forget, teach, don't scold. Always start by asking, "What can help you remember?" Make suggestions as needed. For example, the dog-feeder can use his own hunger to remind himself that Munchkin needs to eat, too. Stress that the consequence of not caring for a living creature is more serious than leaving a bike out in the rain. (Check out an earlier DFW column on getting kids to cooperate.)

Suck it up -- as a family! Life involves distasteful, hard, and sometimes messy jobs. It's okay to complain. But also acknowledge how much pleasure you get from Munchkin's cuddles and crazy antics. In order to have those great times, you have to do the less-desirable work to make sure a member of your family is healthy and happy -- and to be good citizens by cleaning up after her.

Hi, it's Melinda. I welcome your comments and suggestions. Do you have a question about your family or a relationship? No topics are off limits, and it's all anonymous. Just click on this link. And if you're wondering whether you're a family-focused parent, take the "Whole Family Test." Let me know what you think.