Lessons From the King Charles Cavalier

Motherhood guilt and lessons.

December 9, 2019

I write this piece for the mamas whose kids nag them about getting a pet. It’s a post about mama guilt and mama lessons. It’s also about leadership insights learned over the years that I resisted adding a four-legged member to our family.

Around the time that he turned 6, our son began asking for a pet -- a dog specifically. I was raised in the Caribbean. Needless to say, I was adamantly opposed to the idea of a domesticated animal in our home. An American dog, no less! Growing up, we never had fewer than six animals. That was in Haiti, however. The animals ate scraps of human food and lived outside. They had a purpose: to protect us from thieves and from rodents. I saw no utility in having a pet in the U.S. In fact, I feared that a dog would bark at night and exacerbate my sleeping problems. For years, I kept on saying no to the dog, reassuring the boy that when he gets older he can have as many pets as he wants.

Then Came the Big Move

When I took a new job in Massachusetts, my family decided that they were not ready to move just yet. To my chagrin, I would be moving back to our home state alone. Overcome by guilt, I relented begrudgingly, though comforted by the fact that I would not have to live with the dog myself for some time. My son, by then 11, had always wanted a King Charles Cavalier. We found a breeder in Pennsylvania and drove to meet the pup. I watched my boy play on a stranger’s floor with a litter of four dogs. Who was this kid? He was as happy as the day we took him to Storyland in New Hampshire when he was 3 -- a day that has been ingrained in my memory. I realized then that I had been incapable of imagining how much joy a pet could bring to our boy and to our lives. The boy was over the moon!

Before we got the dog, we established the rules. The kids were to be its primary caretakers, with my husband providing adult responsibility. They would walk, feed and bathe the dog, and ensure that it was house-trained and stayed only on the first floor. We all lived together for three months before the move.

Dog and Love Lessons …

It’s now been nearly two years since we adopted a new member of the family, and I have had lots of time to reflect on how the dog has impacted our family. Our kids taught me so much through this experience and continue to provide insights that influence my growth as a leader. My resistance to having a dog, I realize, was not only culturally embedded but also reflected a range of fears. It also reflected a limitation in that, for years, I could not imagine the joy that a pet could bring our children. My focus as a parent has been on their academic and physical well-being, with less attention on their emotional well-being. Additionally, I could not imagine that the dog could teach them responsibility and the range of skills it has given them. The lessons that I try to teach them about hard work and the stories that I share with them about my responsibilities as a child growing up in a Third World country or in the challenging neighborhoods in Boston sometimes go in one ear and out the other. They were far less effective than the experiential learning of caring for a dog themselves.

Since we have had the dog, both kids have shown greater leadership and empathy and demonstrated a much deeper sense of responsibility. They collaborate on caring for the dog. Their leadership has spilled over other areas as well, not just with the dog. They are also much more social. There is more joy, more laughter and more displays of love and affection in our home that I attribute in part to the dog. The kids love their dog immensely, and she reciprocates that love. Even I can admit that I appreciate the dog!

Yves Salomon-Fernández is president of Greenfield Community College in Massachusetts. She writes about women’s issues for Inside Higher Ed’s “University of Venus” from the perspective of a Generation Xer, a mom and leader of color. Her Twitter handle is @PrezYves.

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Yves Salomon-Fernandez

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