Putting on the Kid Gloves

Children represent a tremendously important segment of pet specialty stores’ customer base. Here is some advice about working with their youngest shoppers.


I am often asked by civilians—by that, I mean those outside both the industry and the hobby—“What is the most dangerous animal in the store, or that you have worked with?” The correct answer is, of course, “I am looking at it.”

Humans are, without parallel, the planet’s most dangerous species. They are prone to violence, absorbed by self-interest and completely unpredictable. And as the old adage says, children are the future, so it is possible to make the argument that nothing on Earth is more dangerous than the human child. Yet, it is our business to work with them, each and every day.

I find that working with animals is not only a skill; it’s a talent. I had a partner some years ago that sincerely loved reptiles and worked exceptionally hard to acquire the skills pursuant to our profession. However, as competent as he became in the field, and after years of his efforts, every time he picked up an animal, the poor creature looked uncomfortable and worried.

Similarly, the ability to work well with children is both a skill and a talent. When we don’t have an inherent talent to work with kids, we must redouble our efforts to acquire the skill. I readily admit that I do not possess that talent, but on the other hand, I have worked for nearly 37 years with them, and I have a lot of skills, some of which I’d like to pass on to you.

I set a goal for myself when working with children. I want a parent to walk up to me at the end and say, “You must really love kids!” Whether I do or not is my secret, but I think it’s a good goal.

I have witnessed appalling sales-pitch performances in our business. I have seen salespeople completely ignore children in favor of talking to their parents. I have seen salespeople ignore parents in favor of talking with children, and I have seen salespeople talking at both children and parents rather than with them. We are almost always talking with families, and making both eye and verbal contact with all of them is essential. That said, children often require a delicate touch.

One of my cardinal rules is to never use baby talk with a child. It is almost always a turn-off to them. They want to feel engaged, and pandering is as obvious to them as it is to adults. Talk in your own voice, and treat them as your peer. In fact, you do need to modify the level at which you communicate, as it also does no good to talk at a level of sophistication that is well beyond kids’ reach. The more you practice, the finer your skills will become at finding just the right level with every age. Surprisingly, that level is not at, but about a half-step beyond, the child’s cognitive level. I find that kids want to reach, and you can keep them engaged when the language challenge is just slightly beyond their current abilities. It’s a delicate skill, but well worth acquiring.

Similarly, I think it’s a mistake to kneel down when talking to youngsters. Maintain yourself as an adult, and they will respect you for it. This all changes, of course, when handling animals with them. At that point, it is entirely appropriate to work with them face to face, for the safety of both the child and the creature.

I had a young man of seven come up to me at the counter the other day asking about ball pythons. I spent about five minutes with him, trading stories and information about them. He had questions; I had answers. We talked about their natural history and feeding regimen. He told me about the python that lived in his class; I told him about the first ball python I ever held. His parents held back, observing. I treated him as an equal, and he responded as one. Two hours later, they were back in the shop to buy a ball python and set-up.

Many parents come to me asking, “What would be the best pet for my child?” On the face of it, that seems like a reasonable question, and if all children were exactly the same, I might have a well-fashioned rote answer. They aren’t, and I don’t. So my first answer is always the same: “The pet that your child is in love with!” To me, that really is the right answer. If a child does not believe that this is the perfect pet, he or she will soon lose interest. Children do best with the animal that they believe they have themselves selected. It is your job to make the youngster feel that way, while simultaneously guiding him or her to an animal that is appropriate to the family’s budget, desires and dedication. Again, this can be a delicate balance, but remember that if it feels like a compromise to the child, chances are you will be seeing that animal back again in a matter of days or weeks.

Many parents also imagine (and this is pure delusion in almost every case) that their young person will be capable and solely responsible for an animal’s care. That is a ludicrous supposition, and I am quick to let parents know that if they cannot or do not want to shoulder the burden of care for the pet themselves, don’t buy it. Again, it is better to lose the sale than to see an abused and neglected pet returned to you with looks of surprise and recrimination on the faces of your customers.

Frankly, I have on some occasions met seven year olds who, aside from the obvious need for their parents to intercede to buy the crickets, etc., are entirely capable of caring for creatures with rather elaborate and complex care regimes. I have on many occasions encountered 50 year olds that can barely tie their own shoes, much less maintain a pet. Those are extremes, of course, but humans are variable. It is part of your job to assess, in a short period of time, what works and what is beyond the ken of every family to whom you sell.

I have been in this field long enough to have seen children I worked with decades ago grow up, and one of my greatest pleasures at this point is to see them come in now, as adults, with kids of their own, allowing me to start the cycle all over. In day-to-day life, it is easy to lose the idea that how you comport yourself matters. These adults are for me a constant reminder that what we do in the pet business matters. We are part of what makes families whole. If we do our work well, and take our own animals—destined to become members of these families—seriously, it matters. If we talk to children in a way that helps them grow and solidifies their connection with the natural world, it matters.
Children are the future. You have a hand, perhaps larger than you think, in shaping that future.

Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 30 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.


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