These are confusing times. As old certainties give way to new possibilities, it can feel like we’re hurtling into the future blind, bewildered, and afraid. There are many manifestations of our fear of the future — the current election seems built from them — but there’s one that unsettles me most: the new idea that having a pet makes you a “parent.”
That people with pets now refer to themselves as “mom” and “dad” seems benign at first, a playful, innocent co-option meant to convey the deep love they feel for their animals. And if that was it, I wouldn’t be alarmed. I’ve had pets, and I appreciate how having one can be one of the life’s great joys, an emotional and enriching experience of intimate connection with another being. But scroll through your feeds and look at how pets are treated, presented, and understood today. There’s no longer any sarcasm in a bumper sticker that says, “My Child Has Four Paws.” When people call themselves pet “parents,” they’re not just being playful. They sincerely believe that what they’re doing is parenthood.
It’s their sincerity that worries me because it can’t mean anything that, just as we’re confronting a terrifying kaleidoscope of unprecedented societal change, millions of people are happily, willfully confused about the difference between having a pet and raising a child. Parenting is our connection to the future, the means by which we attempt to influence what tomorrow’s world will be. When people with pets take the title of “parent” and blur the line between pets and children, our language is distorted in a way that only adds to our confusion and anxiety. It may be a gentle delusion to think of your pet as your “child,” but it’s still a delusion. Misnaming our relationship with pets isn’t just a lighthearted goof. It’s a retreat from the world.
I have two children, and when I meet people with pets who equate their experience to mine, I don’t know how to react. I should be able to say, “Please don’t equate your pet with my children,” but something stops me; it now feels rude, practically reactionary, to insist on the difference.
Here’s what I want to say: Your pet had a parent, and that parent was not a human being. That parent was another animal who, if it had the chance, would have taught your pet everything it needs to know about being the animal it is. Mostly how to find food, where to find shelter, and what to avoid that might kill it. What you have to teach your pet is how to relate to the human world (mostly how not to eat shoes, hump legs, or ruin carpets). This is the paradox at the heart of having a pet: We love them because they aren’t human, then spend their lives treating them like people. We project onto them what we wish we could see in ourselves and others. We don’t really want them to be animals — wild, free, ultimately unknowable — we want them to be like us, but more static and predictable. Something we can control.
Which is why they soothe our fear of the future: Pets don’t change. Your pet may slow down as it ages, but, otherwise, the time you spend with it will always be the same. They provide the consistency we crave. Every day when we come home, they’re happy to see us, eager for our attention, ready to give us love. You can count on your pet, you can trust it. Your pet won’t betray you.
But this is where the parent metaphor breaks down, and this is where I ask people with pets to stop calling themselves “parents”: You can’t trust children. From minute one, they are dynamic individuals, immediately asserting their will, out to change the world around them. In stark contrast to pets, children are always trying to outgrow, outflank, and outsmart their parents. Children are cunning and devious, with long memories and big plans. They don’t just grow, they develop. Parents and children have an adversarial relationship: As a parent, you guide your children toward a vision of the future that your children try to make obsolete (that’s what we call progress). The aggregated result of billions of these relationships is what constitutes society. Pets don’t do any of this. They are not involved.
We should remember that pets are extensions of us. We keep them to meet our needs, not theirs. Though we fantasize that person and pet meet as equals and join forces out of mutual admiration and respect, that’s not how it is. Pets are biological Tamagotchi, and their dependence is absolute, built in to ensure their perpetual obedience. You can’t “parent” a pet because you aren’t teaching it how to leave you and become an independent being. Your pet is stuck with no choice but to love you. Even Snoopy, who lived wild and free in his mind, never left Charlie Brown. He knew who had the supper dish.
Are we coming to the point where the fundamental differences between pets and children are no longer understood, or worse, actively denied? Given the attention paid to pets today, I fear active denial is well under way (explore any pet “parent” hashtag to see for yourself). We now prefer the simulation to reality, where having a pet is like playing with a living doll, a chance to enjoy the activity and ritual of parenthood without any of the purpose, consequences, or hard work. But if their appeal is a chance to escape the demands of human society, why would anyone want to conflate them with children, the literal embodiment of those demands? When I had pets, it was their difference from humans I enjoyed, not their similarity.
It’s absolutely okay to say no thanks to parenthood. The role of the parent is not for everyone, nor should it be. But if you do forgo children and get a pet instead, understand the reality of your choice. By all means, enjoy your pet; adore, cherish, and love your pet. Spoil it, indulge it, dress it up for Halloween. Just remember that none of that makes you a parent. To call yourself that, you need to have kids.