My first test of being responsible for another living thing happened when I was in college. I received a Black Labrador Retriever from another college student who had purchased this full-bred, papered puppy before realizing that “Having a puppy is a lot of work!” His lanky body and big feet made him goofy and his playful free spirit made him extremely cute! As endearing as this 10 week old puppy was, he had a lot to learn about life and I had a lot to learn about being his mom! He had to learn to go to the bathroom outside, listen when he was called and refrain from chewing everything in sight! I had to learn how to teach him these things.
Looking back on this experience, I realize there are some parallels between raising a puppy and raising a teen. Both have a lot to learn about life, both get away with things occasionally because they are so cute, and both need consistent rules, boundaries and affection to grow up. One of the first things I did was get my dog, Cassidy, a kennel. He spent all of his alone time in this kennel; he even slept in it at night. This helped him learn not to chew or go to the bathroom inside. However, the true test of his learning would come when he got to stay home alone, without having to be in his kennel. It was at that point that I would know if I could really trust him. Don’t we experience this same realization with our teens? We can only know that they have learned and that we can trust them when we let them loose to face the world and make their own decisions.
When Cassidy was six months old, I decided it was time. He had graduated to having the freedom to roam the apartment for a few hours at a time. From this experience, I learned some pretty important things that can be related to raising teens. First, I learned that Cassidy liked his kennel. His cozy little den was comfortable, safe, and predictable. Most of the time, he was in his kennel when I got home, even though he was no longer restricted. Teens are not all that different. Teens need their home to be comfortable, safe, and predictable. Even though they may argue differently, setting rules and expectations for behavior and following through with consequences gives them a sense of security. If home is not comfortable, safe and predictable, where can teens go to gain a sense of control in the midst of their chaotic life?
I also learned that bored puppies make for naughty puppies. Cassidy stayed out of trouble when there were toys for him to play with and bones for him to chew. Teens also need ways to stay busy. As they get older and increasingly independent, they need an appropriate balance of extracurricular activities and leisure time. Every teen wants down time, but too much down time can be troublesome. It robs them of the opportunity to develop confidence and skills and creates a setting where they can make bad choices in an effort to fill their time.
Finally, I learned that Cassidy got in trouble when something new was introduced to his safe and structured environment. One of his first adventures out of his kennel was spoiled by a “care package” that my mom sent me. True to form, this package was filled with laundry soap, homemade cookies, and other goodies and necessities. Cassidy ate all the cookies, which obviously had a “negative” impact on his behavior. Who knew a 6 month old puppy could completely destroy a lazy-boy chair! Our teens are going to be introduced to new things all the time and there is no way that we can predict every scenario. However, we can pay attention, consider possibilities, and do our best to prepare them for the unexpected. Teens also need to know that their parents don’t expect them to know everything. They feel great relief when they know they can call on a parent for help and guidance. Our role is to be both available and approachable so that our teens can ask for help anytime they feel unsure or unsafe. I’ve known many teens that have said things like: “I felt so much better after I told my dad everything” and “I was relieved when I told my mom and was no longer alone in dealing with my problems”
It is absurd to say that raising a dog is just like raising a teen. We all know that the stakes are quite a bit higher with teens. Still, pets often provide the first context for us to learn about being responsible for another living thing. How we love and discipline our pets has an impact on the kind of pet they become. It may be fun for you to think about your experiences with animals, consider other parallels, and share a story with us!