By Lydia Rueger
“Can we get a hamster?” pleaded my 6-year-old daughter, Stella, last spring, after visiting her friends who had just gotten several. Sigh. Every fiber of my being wanted to say “no.” It was just another thing I would have to clean up after and feed. I could already envision the creature escaping and dying prematurely in some corner of the house. Or the cat would get him. Or he would get smashed underneath something, traumatizing my daughter before she even hit first grade.
But against my better judgement, I said “we’ll see,” and told her that if she really wanted one, she was going to have to “work for it.”
I made her save money for both the hamster and the cage, and we devised a system for her to earn up to $5 a week by doing chores. The first “hamster lesson” began to unfold when, in the midst of me being proud of myself for teaching her responsible money management, I realized something. She didn’t know how to count out a dollar using coins! Whoops, I thought she knew. But now that she actually had a reason to count, it stuck.
So, each week we counted, until glorious H-Day arrived. We went to the pet store with her cash, and miracle of miracles, she chose the most economical cage in the store — a plain wire one with a simple yellow wheel that came with food and accessories. The pink sparkly tunnels and colorful cages, boasting all the latest in hamster fashion, didn’t stand a chance after she heard the prices. Second lesson: my girl, who writes notes to fairies, had made her first practical, educated decision.
Once home, our new rodent friend, named French Fry, seemed to inspire other positive behaviors. My daughter’s first sleepover, which I feared would be filled with movies, too many sugary snacks and nail painting, instead was focused around designing tunnels and rooms out of building toys and blocks — all for French Fry.
Third and fourth lessons. When we went camping, my daughter, who can’t be bothered to pick her underwear off the bathroom floor, carefully relayed all the important instructions for hamster-care to her friend who was watching French Fry. She cried in the car as we left the hamster behind — her first moment of caring deeply for, and truly missing, someone for whom she was responsible.
Who knew that responsibility, creativity, nurturing, caring and a few math concepts would develop from a half-pound ball of fur? I guess I could have saved my money on that “Challenges for First Graders” workbook. And he is pretty cute… after all.