Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Pet Can Make You a Better Parent

I got my first pet as an adult. He was a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig and I loved him. Took him everywhere. This was the first time I was ever fully responsible for another's well being. Had to feed him (told friends I had to go home and 'slop the hog!'), look after him (Omigod, dropped an M&M. Can pigs eat chocolate? *dives for it*), and take him regularly to the doctor.

Um, veterinarian. Sometimes I forget he was another species.

I went from barely taking care of myself to having this little creature I was daddy to. I had to start thinking like a parent: how best to socialize him? For Halloween, I put a mini-cape on him. Count Porkula. Trick-or-treaters lost their inhibitions and petted his wiry-brush mane. After that, he became much more comfortable around children. How to let your 'kid' be himself? The pig wanted to root, flip things over while looking for food. So I hid treats to give him something to do, rather than punishing him for folding over the rugs. That’s who he wanted to be—flipper-over guy. Part of parenting is learning to let your kids be whom they want.

For most people, I imagine, having a pet is something you first do when you're a child. So when I started writing my middle grade book, I decided to give my kid-protagonist a pet. Tweeners are children emerging into adulthood, what a better way to show it? But novels need problems, so I made him the new kid in town, prone to embarrassment, and yeah, you guessed it, he gets a pig as a pet. Mortification ensues.There are few animals with more negative associations than the porcine.Talk about overcoming stereotypes! Yet that’s just the situation. The plot really kicks in when my character loses his pig, and stays out all night looking for him in the woods—this leaves his parents a wreck. For the first time, my reluctant, pet-owning kid empathizes with his parents' worry. This experience put him in the boots of parenthood.

For myself, having a pet meant I had to factor his considerations into all my decisions. See outside my own needs. If I didn’t take care of him, I had to make sure some one else would. When I went on to have kids of my own, I never forgot the lessons I learned raising my pet. How he forgave my mistakes. How I learned to love teaching him new things. How I became a better parent through the experience of caring for him.

Though my life is very full now, I miss him every day. He's the one who convinced me I was ready for fatherhood.



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What would happen...

If you gave an attention-shy twelve year old boy an embarrassing pet: Get kicked out of town? Make the baseball team? Both? Read all about it in NOT JUST FOR BREAKFAST ANYMORE.