The average life span of a rat is 2-3 years, so you definitely won’t be stuck caring for this pet when your child leaves for college. However, 2-3 years is plenty long enough for a child to learn about pet care and to form an attachment bond, as well as a valuable introduction to death and the process of grieving.
Unlike other small mammals, such as mice and gerbils, rats are both social and intelligent. The key is to get a rat when it is very young, just weened is best, and to handle it as much as possible. Because rats are nocturnal, it is best to handle them playfully in the mornings and evenings. You can also hold a rat during the day. It just needs a dark space in your lap or under your shirt and, provided that, it may snooze away in your arms while you stroke its back! During more active times, a rat will enjoy crawling around on your lap or your shoulder or exploring an obstacle course that you create for it. And, even though a rat will run for the nearest cover (behind furniture and under cushions) if you put it down, its primary goal is not to escape from you, as it is with other small mammals.
This brings me to the next point: the beauty of containment. A rat in a cage is contained and, so long as the cage is large enough to allow your rat to climb, burrow, chew and hide food, it will enjoy the safety and comfort of its cage…and so will you. There are no worries about messes (other than cleaning the cage on a regular basis), no worries about your pet crawling behind the computer desk and chewing on cords, and no worries about having it constantly under your feet or begging at the dinner table.
So what are the downsides to having a pet rat? The only thing that I can come up with is our cultural, societal aversion to rats. Many people either perceive rats as dirty, when in fact, like cats, rats are constantly cleaning themselves; or they have had prior bad experiences with wild rats scuttling inside their walls. Bear this in mind: A pet rat is not the same creature as a wild rat.
If you find yourself in the important quandary of choosing a first pet for your child, consider that rats are friendly, intelligent, social, fuzzy little friends who will enjoy being your child’s pet as much as your child will enjoy the rat. Rats are easy to contain, clean up after and feed. And, the only thing you really need to worry about is the screeching of your guests when your child wants to show off his pet!