Long Island Parent Talk

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Getting his first pet

Harrison "plays cards" with his pet bearded dragon,

Harrison "plays cards" with his pet bearded dragon, Roughie McKenna. (Credit: Newsday photo / Valerie Kellogg)

For a lizard, Roughie's got a lot to teach my son, Harrison.

Roughie, as my 8-year-old son named him, is a baby bearded dragon. As far as reptiles go, it is among the cuddliest kinds a child can own. By cuddly, I mean it likes to sit on its owner's chest, closes it eyes when it is pet and answers to its name. Check out YouTube and you'll even see some who swim, ride tiny skateboards and play games on iPhones (yes, games on iPhones).

Dogs and cats have eluded Harrison, whose eyes swell up when he gets near their fur. Frogs, fish and other sea life have come to our home, but Harrison has always wanted a creature that could be more of a companion.

So after he instantly bonded with a baby bearded dragon at a pet store (and I did, too), there was no turning back. He was going to get something for his 9th birthday, after all, whether Dad liked it or not (not so much, but it's growing on him).

The day before Roughie came home, as Harrison and I assembled the 40-gallon tank in Harrison's room and set up lights, gauges and furniture — including the little green hammock Roughie would sleep on at night — Harrison declared, "This is going to be a lot of responsibility." Agitated me, rushing through the setup to get on to the next weekend Mom task, stopped, looked at him and said, "Yes, it is."

Harrison had already a whole lesson on money that week as he scrambled to make up for the money my husband and I didn't plan on laying out. Like some of my friends' children Harrison's age, Harrison never really got the memo on what you can do with money once it's in your pocket. He soon figured that out. With money left over from Christmas gifts and some cash we gave him, he lobbied his uncle and aunt for more but figured out that he needed much more.

In a moment of weakness, I gave Harrison the steel bucket of change my husband and I filled over the years. Harrison's first trip to the bank for a transaction he needed to do turned into a well-photographed one as he poured coins into a machine and was soon handed $209 in bills by a friendly teller.

Now that Roughie is home with us, Harrison's premonition about the responsibility he has seems to have sunk in. There's the handing over of allowance for twice-weekly trips for food at the pet store, the somewhat involved task of feeding live crickets every morning, the caring for the live crickets (they need to be given water and food, too), making sure there is fresh fruit and vegetables in the cage every day, remembering to supplement the diet with mealworms, and training the lizard to drink water.

But there's also the issue of turning on and off the lights at certain times of the day and in certain combinations, cleaning the tank not only weekly but daily, too, ensuring the temperature and humidity are at safe levels, and that Roughie's eyes and coat appear healthy.

All this Harrison has done gladly — and lovingly, too. At least as of today.  He has turned time with his pet into a sport, introducing toys to Roughie, playing games with him (cards anyone?), watching TV with him and playing music for him. He documents their time together on Roughie's Facebook page (he'd be happy to accept your friendship -- just look for Roughie McKenna).

As Harrison points out, it is important to bond with Roughie, this to domesticate the animal. "I love you, Roughie," Harrison says every day, several times a day, and with pride in his face, as he pets him and plays with him for as long as he can before school or bed.

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