HomeHealth & BehaviorBehavior & Discipline

Ask the Experts

My Third-Grader Won't Take Care of His Pet

By Debra Collins, Family therapist


My third-grade son has a pet rabbit that he claims to love dearly. However, his efforts to take care for his pet are minimal. We struggle daily to get him to feed and exercise the rabbit (before and after school). Have we made a mistake giving him a pet at this age? Should he be able to handle the responsibility without constant reminders? If I say we will give the rabbit away, he gets upset.


I'm sure that your son "dearly loves" his rabbit. A third grader is capable of taking care of pets. However, that's still a young age to expect him to do it without prompting. Threatening to remove the pet is not the most effective way to teach responsibility. It might create bad feelings for everyone.

Make sure that your son is able to accomplish his pet care duties. Does he have enough time in the morning to feed the rabbit? If mornings are stressful, what could you do the night before to make things run more smoothly in the morning? When he comes home, in what order do things need to be done? Organizational skills are learned and practiced, they are not inherent. Have him break down the chores into manageable steps. Have him create a "chore board" and hang it where it's easy to see as a visual reminder and to reinforce the chore management process.

I know a fourth-grade teacher who is a master at teaching routines. He brakes down each routine into small tasks. Students rotate through various "monitor" positions that help ensure the success of these routines. He stands in the front of the class and quietly gives verbal prompts that outline the order of the steps. It took a few months of practice, but eventually his students got it. However, he did have to use verbal reminders on and off throughout the year, but it was always delivered in a neutral tone and, for those who struggled, he consistently gave them the verbal or visual prompts they needed.

You might try this same approach at home. The key is to practice and to outline manageable steps.

Debra Collins is a licensed marriage and family therapist and has worked in both primary and middle schools as a school counselor. She gives workshops to teachers and students and offers parenting classes in the San Francisco Bay Area. To learn more, visit her website.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.