You're wise to think carefully about such a major decision. The best way to tell if your children are up to the task is to observe how they handle other responsibilities. Do they take good care of their clothes and toys? Do they complete homework with few reminders? Do they do their share of household chores without too much grumbling? And do they cooperate reasonably well with each other in these tasks? (If you can't answer "yes" to these questions, tell your children what they need to do to demonstrate their readiness for a pet, then watch the changes in their behavior!)
Consider offering to dog-sit for a friend for a weekend and see how your children handle the responsibility. Give clear directions, but let the children carry out the tasks as independently as possible. Work out a schedule for feeding, walking, and brushing the dog just as you'll need to do if you have your own.
If you decide to go ahead with getting a dog, do careful research about breeds that will be best for your family. Consider a mature dog that's already housebroken, perhaps one from your local animal shelter. (But be sure to find out why the dog was left in the shelter.) If you do decide to get a puppy, think about getting it at the beginning of summer when your children will have adequate time to invest in the early care and training all puppies require.
Finally, keep in mind that in a few years, when your children go off to college or work, the care of the dog probably will fall to you. Dogs are wonderful companions and have a way of becoming a part of the family. Just be sure you and your children enter into this relationship with your eyes wide open!
Editor's Note: Dr. Martha Farrell Erickson, director of the University of Minnesota's Children, Youth and Family Consortium, invites your questions on child rearing for possible inclusion in this column. E-mail to email@example.com or write to Growing Concerns, University of Minnesota News Service, 6 Morrill Hall, 100 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55455.