Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas


Our four-year-old daughter is desperate to have a kitten for Christmas. She just can't stop pestering us. My husband, who was surrounded by animals in his childhood, is all in favour, but I'm not so sure, particularly as we live in a small flat and don't have a garden. I'm sure my daughter will be very good with it, but it seems to me to be too big a responsibility. I was wondering if a goldfish would be an alternative but as my husband rightly says, you can't cuddle a goldfish. What do you think? Yours sincerely, Barbie


Virginia says... I'm all for listening to children, taking their views into account and treating them with respect and all that. But quite honestly, being bullied by a four-year-old child into having a kitten! Who's in charge in your house? You or her? Who's the grown-up?

Of course you're not helped by your husband's attitude, but look at the situation realistically. Firstly, your daughter really can't have, at her age, any idea of the responsibility involved in looking after a kitten, a kitten that will soon grow into a cat. She doesn't have a clue about vet's bills, the smell of its food in a small flat, the shedding of fur, the sharpening of its claws on the furniture, the fact that it might well not be a cuddly kitten anyway. It may be one of those "walk by themselves" cats who refuses to be picked up and frequently won't deign to be seen in the same room as you.

Secondly, and perhaps even more important, it's really not on to keep a cat in a flat. I suppose if it's ancient and has had a good outdoor life in the past and doesn't like going out it might be okay, but cats need outdoors. They need to sit in the sun, leap about chasing flies, eating grass, defending their territory and roaming the fields or gardens around their home. I personally think it's actually cruel to keep a cat anywhere that has no outdoor access. And you should be teaching your daughter that to do this would be extremely unkind.

There are other pets you can get which, when she's perhaps older, like six, you might consider, such as a guinea pigs or hamsters. For a start, their lifespans are far shorter than those of cats. But even then, be sure, when you get them, to buy two, because again it's cruel to keep animals in isolation. Even goldfish, which are naturally shoal fish, should have another couple of fish at least in a large tank, to keep them company.

You are your daughter's parent and are there to guide her. You should no more let her have a kitten at this young age than you would let her go out on a date with a 20-year-old man when she was only ten, or allow her to drive a car on her own at the age of 14.

However much she pestered, you would, I hope say no to these things. Which is what you should do in this case. If you had a garden and you, too, were keen on getting a cat, yes. But you don't and you're not.

Readers say...

Wait a while

I'm not convinced that four is the right age to have an animal unless the adults are going to be very vigilant. It's so hard for a four-year-old to always remember that tails aren't for pulling and hugs can be too tight. My partner's a vet and he does get animals that have been injured by a bit too much loving, or simply fallen over when the little one is running full steam.

However sensitive the child, it's a memory/concentration thing, so I'd explain as carefully as I could, along the lines of "it wouldn't be fair", and see where you are when your daughter is older.

Abigail Acton By email


She's too young

As a mother, and a teacher of four-year-olds,my advice would be to wait. We cannot expect a four-year-old to have the sustained commitment required to look after an animal for any length of time. Give her some good children's literature for Christmas and take her to join the local library. We have so many wonderful children's writers of animal and other stories.

Sue Oakley By email


Next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia, I've been in a relationship with a wonderful woman for a year. I'm divorced and have a seven-year-old son who visits at weekends. My partner and I want to live together, and it would work financially, too. The problem is that she has a severely autistic son of 15 who can be very unpredictable. He can never be left on his own. Now my son, who is quite frightened by my partner's son, has said that if I move in with her, he doesn't want to visit me. My partner says he has to live with difference, but I'm uncertain. What do you think? Yours sincerely, Martin

What would you advise Martin to do? Email your dilemmas and comments to dilemmas, or go to Anyone whose advice is quoted will receive a £25 voucher from the wine website Fine Wine Sellers (

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